May 2009 – Galapagos & Ecuador

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May 2009 – Galapagos & Ecuador
May 14th, 2009 – Day 0
Oakland to Los Angeles, CA

Believe it or not, it’s been more than 18 months since our last adventure and we are very glad that it is finally here. Darin worked a half day today and got out at 2pm, to make sure we could head out to the airport on time at 5pm. Russ and Doreen got to the house about the same time, and Natalie and Edie arrived about 2:45pm. Edie was kind enough to give us all a ride to the airport so she helped us all with some last minute preparations.

At 5pm, we headed off to the airport.After a short wait in security, we made our way towards our gate in the Southwest terminal.Terminal 2 at Oakland is undergoing some remodel and there was little to eat. So we made the short walk to Terminal 1 and had dinner at Chili’s before our takeoff.

With little traffic both on the roads and in the airport, we had an on-time departure at 8:00pm and arrived into LAX at 9:25pm. After a transfer to Terminal 6 and check in with the Copa Airlines international departure desk, we moved onto a quiet corner of the terminal to await our 2:12am flight to Tocumen International Airport in Panama, our short stopover on the way to Quito.

Our Trusted Mode of Transportation in the Galapagos -- The Zodiac or “Panga”

Our Trusted Mode of Transportation in the Galapagos — The Zodiac or “Panga”

A Bull Sealion Poses for the Group

A Bull Sealion Poses for the Group

Sunning on the Side of a Huge Rock Out in the Surf

Sunning on the Side of a Huge Rock Out in the Surf

Pelican - Punta Egas, Galapagos

Pelican – Punta Egas, Galapagos

 

May 15th, 2009 – Day 1
Los Angeles, CA to Panama to Quito, Ecuador

Our day started at 1:15 in the morning as we boarded our full flight from Los Angeles to Panama City.After a six hour flight, we deplaned in Panama City for a 90 minute layover before boarding our 2-hour Copa Airlines flight to Quito Ecuador.Upon arrival in Quito, we went through immigration, collected our luggage, and went through customs.Once in the terminal, we were greeted by Johanna, the Celebrity Cruise representative and a local Ecuadorian tour guide.Johanna took us along with the other six passengers who arrived at the same time to our bus for our transfer to the hotel.Along the 20 minutes ride, Johanna gave us a general overview of Quito and the schedule for the next couple of days.

When we arrived at the JW Marriott we were greeted with cold washcloths and fruit juice before being checked into our rooms. After settling into our room, we went down to the business center to see if we could get access to the internet. There we were informed that since we were Captain’s Club Members we had access to the Executive Lounge on the 9th floor and that we could access free wireless internet up there. We headed up to the 9th floor and was greeted by Giovanny, the Executive Lounge Maître D. Giovanny took good care of us. He served us snacks and drinks, showed us a few fun bar tricks, gave us recommendations for dinner, made our dinner reservations, and arranged for a driver for us. He really spoiled us! After making a few phone calls on Skype, we went back down to the room to get ready for dinner.

Based upon Giovanny’s recommendations, we went to Zazu for dinner.Zazu is a five star Peruvian restaurant close to the Marriott.The food was spectacular, the service top-notch, and it was all very reasonably priced (for people from the US at least).As we were leaving we witnessed one of Ecuador’s largest exports … their roses.At the entrance of Zazu they had a vase of long-stemmed roses that were six feet tall.They looked so perfect that they didn’t even look real … but they were.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel, made a few more phone calls, and went to bed.It has been a long couple of days and we have a big day of touring tomorrow so we need to get some good sleep.

Baby Tortoises - Charles Darwin Science Center - Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Baby Tortoises – Charles Darwin Science Center – Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

In Flight as the Sun Begins to Set

In Flight as the Sun Begins to Set

Adult Tortoises - Charles Darwin Science Center - Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Adult Tortoises – Charles Darwin Science Center – Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

The Locals are Already Keeping an Eye on Us...

The Locals are Already Keeping an Eye on Us…

 

May 16, 2009 – Day 2
Quito, Ecuador & El Mital del Mundo

After a very nice buffet breakfast at the hotel, all of the passengers that would be on our ship gathered in the hotel main lobby, and we broke off into three groups of 25-28 people each, and loaded onto buses that would become our transportation for the day. Johanna, the same guide who brought us in from the airport yesterday would be our guide for the day as we explored Quito and ventured outside of the city for some sights to be seen later in the afternoon.

A quick note before we get started – our driver for the day, Leo, was exceptional in a city of 2 million people where the one way streets are barely 15 feet wide and buildings and sidewalks seem to be on top of one another. He made the job look easy and took very good care of us.

Our first stop this morning was the Old Town of Quito or the Colonial town.Although Quito suffered a massive earthquake in the 60s, the Colonial town survived most of the brunt and is still represented in its older architecture and style of building.

The city and its leadership throughout history have been very religious and as such we began at the Quito Basilica – Built in 1975, it is a newer building and though very beautiful, was uniquely tied to the government that sponsored its building, with official flags surrounding the icons and other religious items within the building.

From here, we proceeded to the Presidential Palace and the Plaza de San Francisco – the main square of the city. We witnessed the changing of the guard and came to the plaza where a number of protests take place in the capital. It is very common for the people of Ecuador to exercise their free speech and protest anything from pay to government support of programs, education, etc. This is commonplace and is more a part of the culture than seen as bad or an uprising amongst the people. Many of the protests are very calm and peaceful and simply allow the people to have a voice.

Continuing our tour, we saw the Iglesia de Compania. This church did not allow any photography as more than 90% of the church walls and ceiling are covered in 23 Carat Gold. Not surprising, this church was created by – wait for it… The Jesuits of course… They had a substantial impact and influence over the country of Ecuador in the 16th and 17th centuries, participating in the conversion of the people and assisting the with the establishment of farms, agriculture, and education, along with their religion. They were expelled by the government for a period of nearly 100 years until a new government that was more in alignment with the ideals of the Jesuits allowed their return, where they still today play a small but important role in the daily lives of the Ecuador people.

A few minutes at the Convent de San Francisco and then we were headed back to the bus for a trip to the far north of the city and then into the countryside to head to our lunch destination, El Crater restaurant. This restaurant is situated at the edge of the caldera of a dormant volcano within Ecuador (there are many here) and provides an incredible view into the crater, along with the view of a native population community that now lives within the volcano! The weather at the restaurant was a mixture of sun, clouds, and a powerful fog bank that rolled over the edges of the volcano, bringing a misty, fog shrouded eerie quality to the place. We enjoyed a nice meal and had a few minutes to walk the grounds before we headed back onto the bus for our final stop of the day, El Mital del Mundo – the Middle of the World.

Mital del Mundo is technically the location that has a nice amusement park type of setup to welcome visitors from all over the world to the place where the equator splits the earth into the northern and southern hemispheres. As we made our way through the front gate, Natalie asks our guide, “Is this the real one or the incorrect one?” Our guide then explained that the monument that we were visiting represented the measurements taken back in the 1800s when an Ecuadorean joined a survey team, primarily from France to determine the location of the Equator. Though they did a remarkably good job, given the limitations of technology in that period, they were in fact off center by about 220 yards. Johanna, our guide provided directions to the true equator (measured via GPS) and we walked to the location just down the road. Here, we got to see the true line, complete some experiments (balancing an egg on the head of a nail, watch water go down a drain clockwise, counterclockwise, and straight down, and see that your weight on the equator is in fact 2 pounds less than anywhere else on earth). We enjoyed the short stop and took pictures, and made our way back to the rest of the tour group and rejoined the bus for our trip back into Quito.

We returned to our hotel and prepared for our evening meal, which was back in Colonial town, where we went to the National Theater of Culture where they had a restaurant located at the same building.We had dinner with other Xpedition passengers and listened to a short opera concert by a locally known Tenor.

After dinner it was back to the hotel, packing, and working ourselves down to a 30lb suitcase and a 14lb carry-on for the flight to Baltra Island in the Galapagos, from where we will board our ship for the next 7 days, the Celebrity Xpedition.

A New Friend Takes a Nap on the Stern of the Xpedition

A New Friend Takes a Nap on the Stern of the Xpedition

Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

The Equator Monument...  or So We Thought...

The Equator Monument… or So We Thought…

Blue-Footed Bobby Nesting with Eggs

Blue-Footed Bobby Nesting with Eggs

 

May 17, 2009 – Day 3
Quito, Ecuador to Baltra & North Seymour Islands, Galapagos

It was an early start to our day today as all of our luggage for the cruise needed to be out in the hallway no later than 5:30am. From here, we had breakfast in the hotel and worked our way back to our buses for transportation to the Quito airport. Here, we were joined by our Celebrity host who flew with us from Quito via Guayaquil to Baltra Island, one of two airports in the Galapagos. At the airport we were joined by a number of different groups as many of the flights on Sundays make their way to the islands as many of the cruises start and complete on this day.

As we boarded our chartered AeroGal flight, we were presented with the first of the Celebrity treatment that we would experience for the duration of our trip. White cloth service with all of our meals on the flights, complimentary drinks, and so the vacation began. We had a very short 40 minute trip from Quito to Guayaquil, where we completed a short fueling stop and picked up a couple additional passengers. Somehow the well trained crew figured out how to serve us a light breakfast of cereal and yogurt in that short length of time.

The second leg of the trip took us from Guayaquil to Baltra island in the Galapagos. This leg was longer and permitted us the chance to enjoy a full lunch and beverage service. It was a great flight, uneventful and on time. A few minutes before our arrival into Baltra, the flight attendants sprayed the overhead compartments with a disinfectant to remove any possibility of contamination from the mainland to avoid the introduction of non-native species to the islands. That has been a major problem in the past, and needs to be closely monitored.

Upon arrival into a most desolate Baltra island (it had been severely stripped of vegetation and animals due to a military base established here during World War II by none other than the United States), we made our way onto shuttle buses (luggage was taken care of by the cruise line straight to our staterooms) and we took a short 5 minute drive to a small pier where we met our first taste of the Galapagos welcoming party – a set of sea lions just sunning themselves on the benches. We donned our lifejackets for the first of many zodiac boat trips from land to the ship.

Off in the distance of the bay, we finally saw the M/N Xpedition, our home for the next 7 days. We arrived to the stern of the ship, where passengers boarded and disembarked the zodiacs in a very efficient manner and made our way on board. We were welcomed with cold washcloths and fruit punch as we made our way into the main lounge, and provided our room keys and were personally escorted to our room – 312.

From here, we were welcomed to the dining room, well situated and of ample size for all of the passengers for a buffet lunch (all breakfasts and lunches were buffet style, while dinner service was served). We had a nice lunch, unpacked our luggage, completed the required safety drill and very quickly we had arrived at our first stop of the cruise, North Seymour Island.

We broke off into groups of approximately 16 people, where we were paired with an Xpedition naturalist that would lead us on our tour for that session. Today on North Seymour island, we were lead by David on a trek of almost 3 hours to visit the island, view the flora and fauna, and enjoy our first sunset.

On this tour, we were introduced to the Frigate bird, one of the dozens of species we will encounter on this trip. As we made our way along the coast, we could see them flying along the sore, and at some points just a dozen or so feet away from us. The males are black with a large red air pouch that is used to attract the females for mating and the females are black with a white head. As we walked along the shoreline, we took plenty of pictures of the birds, and slowly worked our way inland, where we saw our first blue-footed booby. These birds remind me somewhat of a do-do bird, a little clumsy on land, waddling around, but when they soar through the air, looking for fish, they are laser-guided missiles that slam into the water at high rates of speed to capture their meal. On this tour we saw a substantial number of these birds and as they were in mating season, some where nesting with eggs, while others had already given birth and were feeding and caring for their chicks.

From here, we got our first glimpse of a land iguana. Gold, yellow, and orange in color, these lizards easily could reach lengths of more than 5 feet, nose to tail, and yet, in this environment, nothing was afraid – nothing ran away, birds were generally not startled, you could approach within inches of most everything, to observe, take pictures, or just to admire, and in almost all the cases, the wildlife was unphased.

By this time, we had reached the opposite side of the island and with the sun beginning to set, we encountered sea lions and their pups out in the surf and on the sand beaches. Many more birds on this side of the island were mating and nesting, so they could be seen in flocks and they flew around, cared for their young, and generally enjoyed the calm sea breeze and the sun while below the horizon.

If it is starting to sound like I am writing a travel magazine, the scene was exactly as it was, a pelican lounging on a rock on the water’s edge, a blue-footed booby nesting with its eggs a foot or so from the walking path, etc. That’s exactly as it was and what we all were beginning to realize was what made these islands something truly special to appreciate and enjoy.

As we made our way back to the zodiacs from this first trip, a comment was made that, “The trip could end today and that would be just fine with me…” Though we were all in agreement, and even though we had seen as much as we had already, we were just getting warmed up.

After a pleasant zodiac ride back to the ship, we washed up for dinner, and headed up to the evening briefing in the Discovery Lounge. Here, cruise director Karina would provide us with the information about the next day’s options for our shore excursions. After the brief powerpoint introduction for the next day, we moved on down to the Darwin dining room, where we sat down to our table of 6 (Darin’s parents, us, and our new tablemates, Frank and Rosemary – a great couple from the UK). Here we were greeted by our waiter, Andres, who will be referenced many times to come as an exceptional waiter who along with a number of staff members helped make this a trip to remember.

Following a Celebrity dinner, with a slight Ecuadorian twist, we headed off to bed, exhausted, but excited for our first full day of exploration in the Galapagos islands.

Plenty to See Underwater - Punta Egas Snorkeling

Plenty to See Underwater – Punta Egas Snorkeling

Sunning on the Side of a Huge Rock Out in the Surf

Sunning on the Side of a Huge Rock Out in the Surf

The Equator Monument...  or So We Thought...

The Equator Monument… or So We Thought…

A Blue-Footed Booby

A Blue-Footed Booby

 

May 18, 2009 – Day 4
Kicker Rock, Puerto Baquierzo Moreno, & Espinola Island, Galapagos

Our day started very early, but for all the right reasons as we boarded our zodiacs for a 7am sunrise ride out to Kicker Rock, or Dormido Leon “Sleeping Lion”.This location is a rock formation that had formed over thousands of years, and is best seen with the light of a sunrise as it bounces off the rock and the water, almost making the place glow in gold.

Our naturalist for this morning session, Fatima, provided us with information about the species of birds and animals throughout the area as our excellent zodiac driver glided our boat over incredibly calm waters that were nearly like glass. As we circled the rocks, we saw a number of birds, boobies, crabs, sea lions, and even our first glimpse of a sea turtle popping its head out of the water. (Don’t worry, we will see plenty of them a little later in the week.)

The pictures from this site were amazing and our naturalist, Fatima showed us that it is truly a place that must be experienced. She brought a wonderful view and perspective to each sight and could answer nearly every questioned posed to her about the animals, plants, geology and history of the places we have seen.

The Xpedition has 6 naturalist guides and Karina, the Cruise Director, was also able to serve as a naturalist for any tour, if she was needed. We had a maximum 16 guests to 1 naturalist ratio on every trip we took and there were a few where we were fortunate enough to enjoy a much smaller number.

After the one hour zodiac tour of Kicker Rock, we returned to the ship for breakfast and in a very short time, began our second shore excursion for this morning to Puerto Baquierzo Moreno, the capital of the Galapagos islands and the location of the National Interpretation Center. We visited the center to learn about the history of the islands and to understand that for all of its natural beauty, it is a place that has a checkered past involving pirates, whalers, environmental devastation, convicts, swindlers, and now, a long, slow road of conservation and recovery.

After the visit, we had about an hour to enjoy the port town and visit the shops on the main strip. We found a souvenir or two here (as this was one of only two locations in the islands with a major population center) and made our way back to the Zodiacs and to the ship.

During the lunch period, the ship made its way to our next location, while we enjoyed a nice lunch buffet in the main dining room. After lunch, we caught a nap, and then prepped ourselves for our next stop, Espanola island.

Our naturalist for this afternoon was Myra, and she took us on a 2 ½ hour trek over the terrain of Espanola island. She called it her favorite due to the heavy concentration of different animals. She didn’t disappoint. Though it was a very hot afternoon with no shade to be found anywhere, we enjoyed our first Marine Iguanas, Sea lions and their pups, mockingbirds, Sally Lightfoot crabs, Nazca boobies, Blue-footed boobies, and the Galapagos Waved Albatross, the highlight of this island as it is the only location to find them along with their nests. These massive birds have a wing span of nearly 10 feet and when they soar through the air, they look and sound like a large scale radio controlled airplane. As we walked though the area, we came upon an Albatross airport, where the birds would land and takeoff. Given their size and weight they need a running start and will generally throw themselves off a cliff to get enough momentum to begin flying.

As we closed out the excursion, we enjoyed the sunset against the backdrop of another beautiful island in the Galapagos.

We headed back onto the Zodiacs and made our way to the ship, grabbing a hot shower and cleaning up in advance of the evening briefing and a look at tomorrow’s activities. From here, we moved onto dinner where Andres continued his impeccable service and we enjoyed dinner with our tablemates Frank and Rosemary who have been married for 43 years! He’s got a sense of humor very much in alignment with dad’s, so they get along great, and Rosemary is quick… She won’t let anything by her and is a fun person to share our evenings with. Frank also gets bonus points in my book because he doesn’t like desert, so he would regularly share his with the table, which meant Darin usually got to have it.

Off to bed and to get some sleep! It’s going to be another long, but enjoyable day tomorrow.

Our Trusted Mode of Transportation in the Galapagos -- The Zodiac or “Panga”

Our Trusted Mode of Transportation in the Galapagos — The Zodiac or “Panga”

Iguana - Fernandina Island

Iguana – Fernandina Island

Baby Tortoises - Charles Darwin Science Center - Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Baby Tortoises – Charles Darwin Science Center – Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Natalie and Darin Before Dinner at Zazu - Quito

Natalie and Darin Before Dinner at Zazu – Quito

 

May 19, 2009 – Day 5
Cormorant Point, Champion Island, and Baroness Lookout, Isla Floreana, Galapagos

It was another full day as we explored Floreana Island in the Galapagos by both land and sea.Our morning excursion was shared with our naturalist Sofia, as we spent the morning session at Cormorant point looking for Flamingos.Flamingos generally are harder to locate and find anywhere due to the unique living and feeding requirements.Flamingos primarily live and feed in brackish ponds, locations that are a careful balance of salt and fresh water to allow for the growth of their primary food source.

Not only must the food source be readily available, but the temperature of the water cannot be too high or too low, the salt balance must be appropriate, and the depth of the water cannot exceed the abilities of their legs and mouths to feed. With all of those requirements, we were more than happy to locate a set of four flamingos and a chick. The flamingos get their color dependent on the amount of food they eat, so a male becomes more desirable to the females with the darker pink color as it shows they are a better and more capable provider. We’re learning a lot on this trip!

Once we viewed the flamingos, we headed out to another beach where we had our first chance to see the nesting areas of the green sea turtles. These massive females make their way up the sand dunes under cover of darkness dragging their bodies and shells across the sand and up the hills to locate a suitable spot to dig a 2-3 foot deep hole and lay anywhere between 80 and 120 eggs. Then the hole is covered up and the mother leaves, never to see the eggs and her babies ever again. The eggs then incubate in the sand, and the sex of the baby turtles is determined based on the temperature that the eggs maintain during their development. The warmer eggs lean towards males, while slighter cooler eggs lean towards female.

The baby turtles then hatch and must crawl to the surface of the sand, make their way to the ocean and survive until they are old enough to start the process all over again. Facing a number of predators and considerable odds stacked against them in this process, only 1 out of 2000 eggs will make it to maturity at age 25-30.

After that positive news, our naturalist did inform us that although the native turtle population was devastated over the last few centuries in the Galapagos, their numbers are beginning to return and grow.

We made our way back to the beach where Mom and Natalie stayed at the beach to enjoy the water and snorkel from this location, while Dad and Darin took the zodiac back to the ship to prepare for Advanced Snorkeling at Champion Island.

Located about 20 minutes away by Zodiac, Champion island is a sheer rock face that falls approximately 100 feet into the ocean, making for a very impressive set of conditions upon which to snorkel and see a variety of sea life.

As we arrived at the snorkel site, the sky opened up and it began to rain a bit, but this helped to make the hot sun a little less intense.Therain ended as quickly as it began, and we entered the water from the boats to begin approximately 60 minutes of snorkeling.Dad had brought the underwater camera case for the Canon A630, so it was a good option to get all of the underwater shots on digital vs. using a one-time use underwater camera. Within minutes, we were taking snapshots of fish, eels, and soon, we were swimming with the sea lions.Amazingly playful and surprising fast in the water, the sea lions had no problems with humans and routinely would swim within inches of us.The only major problem it seemed was trying to press the button fast enough to get them on film.After a number of unsuccessful tries, we got them, along with a number of other fish.

Before we knew it, it was time to return to the ship, but was a most memorable start to the snorkeling sessions on the trip (there are 7 possible snorkel options on this itinerary, so we had a good feeling that we weren’t going to be left empty handed)

Following this morning, we were beat, so we headed back to the ship for a nice buffet lunch and a nice long nap before the afternoon excursions.

Later in the day, we boarded the zodiacs for a 30-45 minute ride within Mystery Bay, looking for sea turtles, amongst other animals including sharks, pelicans, and a very small population of Galapagos penguins. (This location only has about 8, so don’t hold your breath.) Myra was our naturalist for this afternoon, and though we spotted a few things out in the water, it was a for the most part quiet tour, seeing no penguins and only a couple of turtles popping their heads out for just a few moments.

After the trip around the bay, we landed at Baroness Lookout to begin a short, but exhausting hike up to the top of a bluff overlooking the bay. During the ascent we were provided the story of the Baroness who lived on Floreana island and all of the trouble that karma had sent her way. From the lookout, we were able to see the bay, and most of the island in a 360 degree view. Grabbed plenty of pictures, and then began to make our way back down to sea level to reboard the zodiacs and to head back to the Xpedition. On our return trip, we made one more stop with the hope of seeing the Galapagos penguins, but were still unable to locate them.

Once on the ship, time for a shower, short nap, and to make our way to the briefing on the next day’s activities. Karina, the cruise director, provided an excellent overview of what each excursion would entail, including current information on photo opportunities, types of camera lenses that would help capture the local flora and fauna. It made each day a little easier to prep for, and given all of the energy needed for the hikes, etc. it was very helpful to have some of the other details taken care of in advance.

After another great dinner, we had a chance to view the stars out on deck, which were amazing, given the lack of artificial light, and then headed off to bed.

Land Iguana with a Little Friend

Land Iguana with a Little Friend

A New Friend that We Got To Swam With For a Few Moments

A New Friend that We Got To Swam With For a Few Moments

Three Pelicans in Various Stages of Flight

Three Pelicans in Various Stages of Flight

Changing of the Guard at the Presidential Palace, Quito, Ecuador

Changing of the Guard at the Presidential Palace, Quito, Ecuador

 

May 20, 2009 – Day 6
Bachas Beach & Bartolome Island, Galapagos

Early the next morning, we were back on the zodiacs headed to Bachas Beach. Bachas beach is the loosly translated name that was given to this location because a number of barges had sunk near the shore. The local people had difficulties with the English pronunciation of “barges” and “Bachas” is where we land today. At this location there was a little of everything to enjoy – a short hike to see the barges themselves, that just barely peer out of the sand during a low tide, but make for a beautifully cryptic and interesting sight. From there, we continue along the beach, watching out for Sally Lightfoot crabs, making our way through nesting locations for the Green Sea Turtle, and viewing a small brackish pond in the hopes of locating some flamingos as they eat.

On this particular day, we hit the jackpot with plenty to see on all fronts. We also had our compulsory viewing of blue footed boobies, pelicans, marine iguanas, and more.

Once we had completed the hike, we made our way back to the beach, where everyone was donning their snorkel gear to look for a variety of underwater life. On this trip, the water was ok, and though we found a number of fish, the clarity of the water was a little murky so the pictures didn’t turn out as good as we had hoped, but still swam with a school of fish and saw a few new varieties we had not yet seen.

Back to the ship for another great buffet and yet another nap (are we sensing a pattern here? Trust me when I say that you need all of this sleep to make up for the amount of energy expended on the shore excursions, along with the heat and humidity taking it all out of you. Every minute of these excursions is worth it, so it is simply a matter of finding the best way to adapt to the schedule of the day.

In the afternoon, Natalie and I opted for the high intensity excursion while mom and dad took the lower intensity excursion.While mom and dad completed a short zodiac ride to see Pinnacle Rock on Bartolome from the water, Natalie and I hiked to the top of it for a truly amazing view of the islands.If the visibility is clear enough to support it, it is possible to see 27 different islands from this point.One of the other amazing aspects of Bartolome is the terrain.Made up almost entirely of volcanic ash, rock, and lava flow, the surface looks truly like the Moon or Mars.Our naturalist for the day, Manuel took our group (4 of us today because the numbers on the zodiacs were uneven…) to Pinnacle Rock where we saw penguins – lots of them.They were on the rocks, jumping into the water, swimming near the zodiac boats, catching fish, etc.Everywhere we looked we saw them and the trip was already off to an amazing start.Of course, there must be a balance in the world, so once we got to see all the penguins, it was now time to off board and begin the hike.Fortunately, the Galapagos National Park service put in a wooden walkway platform and steps about 10 years ago, so this process is a little bit easier, but nonetheless, we had nearly 370 steps with a substantial vertical climb to reach the top.

Once there, we were both huffing and puffing, but the view was worth it. Plenty of pictures and yes, the walk down is easier than the climb up.

Once we were back down to sea level, we were transported to the black sand beach and had the opportunity to don our snorkel gear. At this location, Natalie and I snorkeled together and were able to get into a few nooks and crannies while under the water. Some fish, but this area was a little less populated than others we had seen, so we called it a day, and made it back onto the beach to catch a zodiac back to the ship.

Briefing for tomorrow completed, we were off to dinner. Andres was our waiter for this cruise. This was not entirely expected as we learned that the Xpedition held open seating, so we kind of anticipated that we would be at a different table each night, trying to find some degree of continuity at the meal. From the first night however, we sat near the end of the dining room in a section where Andres was serving. He is from Ecuador and lives on the coast about an hour from Guayaquil. He had previously owned a bar and restaurant, and decided that it was simply too much work for the return, so he brought his talents to the ship. His quick wit and engagement with his guests was evident from the start – he learned our likes and dislikes and immediately committed them to memory, ensuring that each and every day, our service and his execution got better. It was things like this that helped to cap off an amazing week from a staff of Ecuadorians that were truly proud of their country, these islands, and sharing their home with us.

After another great dinner, it was time to call it a day and to prepare for another full agenda in the Galapagos!

The Real Equator, Measured by GPS - 220 Yards Away

The Real Equator, Measured by GPS – 220 Yards Away

Many Steps to the Top, but the View is Worth It!

Many Steps to the Top, but the View is Worth It!

Diego - Charles Darwin Science Center - Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Diego – Charles Darwin Science Center – Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Pelican in Flight

Pelican in Flight

 

May 21, 2009 – Day 7
Elizabeth Bay, Isabela Island & Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island, Galapagos

It was another early morning with the first zodiacs out at 8am to head into Elizabeth Bay in search of Land Iguanas and a hopeful glance at our first land tortoises in the Galapagos. William was our naturalist today as we made our way onto Isabela island. As the largest island in the archipelago, this island has been introduced to a large number of invasive species that have had an adverse impact on the animals and plant life. One example he mentioned today was that of the goat. Goats would eat the food that tortoises would eat and in some cases would attack tortoises. Along with the goats, man was a substantial threat. Since land tortoises could go for long periods without food and water, they would regularly be taken from the islands by whalers and others on the high seas and stored on ships for food.

Although we were able to see remnants of a tortoise shell, this would be all of the tortoise activity today. William did not disappoint though – he presented to us a Galapagos hawk, the top of the food chain in the islands, along with several land iguanas that walked right up to members of our group. In addition, this island had the largest concentration of finches in the islands, helping Charles Darwin develop some of the major evolutionary milestones that have defined many of the teachings on the subject today.

Once the visit to Elizabeth Bay was completed, we made our way back to the ship for a long lunch break, as we were moving the ship to our afternoon stop. During this time, all the naturalists made themselves available on deck to answer questions from the passengers as well as to look for whales and dolphins in this area. Though a number of sealions were found, the dolphins and whales would need to wait for another day.

On this day, we had an amazing BBQ lunch buffet on deck, versus in the dining room, and we were able to have share a great lunch on deck with the sea breeze and the ocean as we moved towards Fernandina island for the afternoon excursion.

We were fully rested in preparation for the visit to what many naturalists call their favorite island – Fernandina. This island is the most pristine of all of the Galapagos islands with a smallest amount of human impact and no direct settlement. No one lives on the island, has the most endemic species of plants and animals and has not encountered many impacts from outside forces. As we exited the zodiacs on this island, we were literally flooded with marine iguanas. There were everyone on this island. Not only do they nest here, they have substantial colonies on this island. They are very mellow, do not have trouble with people, and are very content with doing little more than sunning themselves on the beach.

As we moved into a small cove area, we encountered some Sally Lightfoot crabs and a family of sea lions. This family included the bull (father male), a mother, and two pups. The two pups happily provided ample photo opportunities for the group, and as our naturalist for the excursion, Fatima was telling us, the pups here were participating in the equivalent of Kindergarten where they were learning the ropes of life as a sealion, how to hunt, interact, and grow into the adults that they will need to be to maintain the species. Given that this island is very sensitive to many different animal groups, we needed to be very cautious about where we stepped and the marked trail was very narrow today. Well, apparently, the sea lions playfully reminded us who was boss on the island as the bull approached very close to the group. It is our responsibility to maintain our distance, so the group carefully backed off and our naturalist gave us all very specific and accurate instruction to ensure that we could continue to enjoy the tour without interrupting the sea lions. Then the bull that approached us decided to take a nap and dropped himself directly across our tour path. I think that he was laughing at us the whole way as we had to take a detour to work our way around him.

As the tour continued, the laughter from our tour group just got louder as yet another set of sea lions approached and wanted to play a fun game of chicken with us on the path. There was little danger in this process, but just proved how direct and interactive the sea lions can be with people.

As we worked our way around the point, we saw a beautiful blue heron resting on a rock, and a sea turtle that uncharacteristically came onto the beach to rest for a while.

As we crossed lava flows, Fatima described the different types of volcanoes and their lava flow patterns and we crossed over large cracks and crevices in the path, some of which could easily swallow an adult.

We saw lava cactus and before the tour was done for the day, we got to see the skeleton of a whale that had washed up on the shore many years ago and was recreated in the spot by a Galapagos scientist that has studied this island.

We made our way back onto the zodiacs after an amazing afternoon, now completely understanding why this is a favorite island of so many of the naturalists. The diversity of animals and the interactivity that you can have in this place was unforgettable.

Back on the ship, we cleaned up and headed to the lounge for some entertainment before the evening briefing.This evening, the ship musician, Jacobo, was joined by one of the waiters, Edison, who played a duo.They did a great job and just proved a bit more that the staff on the ship was far more than just folks that did a job – they also wanted to share their talents and bring something more to the trip.

Karina presented her briefing for the next day’s activities and we headed to a special dinner. Tonight not only was the ship doing dinner under the stars on deck, but it was also Rosemary’s birthday. Andres set up a special reserved table for us and he treated us like royalty – champagne was flowing for the birthday, we enjoyed soup, salad, and the main courses were too numerous to count. To close things out, the staff came and sang Happy Birthday in English and Spanish and presented a wonderful chocolate cake that was shared. It was a wonderful end to a great day. I think it is safe to say that there is not a substantial amount of night life as most passengers are simply out of energy at this point, so we headed off to bed to prep for our next day.

Mr. Lizard, Ready for his Closeup

Mr. Lizard, Ready for his Closeup

Quito, Ecuador

Quito, Ecuador

A Street in Quito, Ecuador

A Street in Quito, Ecuador

You can balance an egg on the head of a nail!  Only at the Equator!

You can balance an egg on the head of a nail! Only at the Equator!

 

May 22, 2009 – Day 8
Puerto Egas, San Salvador Island & Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill), Galapagos

After all of the constant go and go that this trip has offered us (including two or more excursions per day, along with more than half a dozen opportunities to snorkel), we all collectively decided that today was going to be the low intensity day, and we would select the two easier options for the day. Did this mean that we missed out on anything? Far from it! If anything we got to see and do more, even if the hiking was a little less strenuous and the zodiacs did most of the work.

The morning stop today was at Point Egas where our naturalist for the excursion was none other than Karina, our Cruise Director! Our group was small today as well (only 6 of us)! She has been in the islands for more than two decades and very comfortably settled into her role this morning, as she took us much further out along the coast than the hikes went today and we were introduced to the Galapagos Islands fur seals.One quick note – there are no seals in the Galapagos.The “fur seals” are in fact sea lions, but were given the name some time ago and it stuck.Fur seals are very different from the other sea lions in the Galapagos – they are much more timid, shy, and human avoiding.They are best seen from the lens of a camera and will generally hide away or dive into the water when approached by humans.This species was decimated by early visitors to the islands and it seems that this fact has not faded.We were able to see a few dozen fur seals today, a number that even surprised Karina, given that it is possible for this trip to see less than 2 fur seals, so we were very fortunate.

Along with the fur seals, we also saw a large number of birds feeding and diving into the surf at high rates of speed to get fish.As we made our way into the Point, the zodiac pulled up onto a beautiful black sand beach, and Dad, Natalie, and I threw on our snorkel gear as this was identified as some of the best snorkeling of the trip.Everyone’s opinion is different on this point, so I will simply say that since we took a 45 minute zodiac with Karina, that put us on the beach almost 30 minutes before any of the hiking groups, so we had the entire snorkel site to ourselves.

In this short period, we saw parrotfish, schools of varying types, colors, and sizes of fish, moray eel, and Natalie got to meet her first sea lion in the water. That was a blast until we heard one of the other passengers shout, “Turtle!” This is what we had been waiting for and moved about 20 yards from our current spot and met our first sea turtle. The best part was that he brought his friends and for the next 20 minutes we swam with 4 different sea turtles. It was amazing to be within just a few feet of these amazing creatures. Their shells reflected reds, browns, and greens in the water and a group of about 10-12 of us maintained a close, but safe distance to ensure that they would not be disturbed.

After nearly 90 minutes in the water, Natalie and I literally crawled back onto the shoreline and made our way to the zodiacs to return to the ship.

We had a great lunch and just relaxed as we prepared for an afternoon to visit Cerro Dragon or Dragon Hill. We opted for a short hike to look for flamingos, but the brackish pools in this location were not producing the food that the flamingoes needed so they were empty. We considered snorkeling after the flamingo search bust, but some friends of ours that were already in the water said that the wave action was reducing visibility substantially, so we read the tea leaves and called it a day. Got back onto the zodiac and headed back to the ship with a nice break before dinner. The briefing with Karina prepped us for tomorrow, and then back to the dining room with Andres for a fantastic dinner.

After that it was off to bed – tomorrow is Puerto Ayora and it is Tortoise day!

Underwater life at Bachas Beach

Underwater life at Bachas Beach

The Reason Why the Flightless Cormorant Can't Fly -- Wings Too Small!

The Reason Why the Flightless Cormorant Can't Fly — Wings Too Small!

A Pair of Oyster Catchers

A Pair of Oyster Catchers

Female Great Frigate Bird

Female Great Frigate Bird

 

May 23, 2009 – Day 9
Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

Today wasn’t much in the way of selection for our shore excursions. There was one in the morning and one in the afternoon, but these were hand picked for us to ensure that we got everyone we could possibly want out of Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos, at a population of approx. 25,000.

In the morning, we rode the zodiacs into the port and boarded mini buses that took us the 2 minute trip to the end of the main road in Puerto Ayora, and the home of the Charles Darwin Research Station. At this location are the scientists and the researchers that continue to try to maintain and support the conservation efforts in the islands. Here they are working to rebuild populations of various animals as well as to remove invasive species, from rats to insects, feral dogs and cats, as well as those pesky goats mentioned a little ways back.

At this station as well, we were able to see how tortoise eggs are incubated and assisted to reach maturity. We were able to see baby tortoises at barely a year ago, and could easily fit into the palm of your hand, right up to great grand daddy tortoises that easily topped 100 years of age. As we went from natural pen to natural pen, we were able to get incredibly close to these animals and as long as we didn’t touch or disturb their feeding patterns, we could be up close and personal with these amazing animals.

As we turned a corner, we reached a very special enclosure.This one could not be entered and could only be viewed from a raised platform for this was no ordinary tortoise.In this pen was the very last of his kind.The last known Pinta island tortoise on earth, Soladario Jorge as he is known locally, this was Lonesome George, the last Pinta on the planet.Although scientists have made a number of efforts to introduce him naturally and artificially to procreation of his species, so far all attempts have failed.

Our naturalist for the day, Manuel mentioned a number of different techniques and plans that have been hatched to try and bring some new and workable options to this process, but for the moment, everyone is back at square one. Until then, George shares his pen with a couple of females with a hope that maybe something will click for him and at least one of the ladies. In the meantime, he’s still George, he is still lonely, and he continues to live out his days in relative happiness with plenty of supporters and followers.

We saw a few more exhibits that introduced additional efforts to support the ecosystems and balance the power structure between prey and predator and restore some aspect of balance to some of the Galapagos locations we had visited.

After the visit, we had the opportunity to walk back to the dock via the main road, see many souvenir shops and enjoy the town of Puerto Ayora.

Back on the ship, we enjoyed a nice lunch (the food was good for the entire trip) and rested up for the afternoon excursion.

In the afternoon, we were back on the mini buses in port, but this time, we headed into the highlands where the cloud cover grew thick, the temperature cooler, and the breeze more pronounced. This is natural tortoise stomping grounds and today we would see them in the wild. These locations are open to the public and though they are owned by individual land owners, they must provide safe haven and passage for the tortoises to support their lifestyles and the propagation of the species.

On this visit, Manuel again led us into the depths of this location on unmarked paths that he traversed like he had made them himself, and when many groups encounter one or two, we were fortunate to encounter 6 different tortoises, 2 of which got into a male territorial spat, another two females that were trying to outrun frisky males and two tortoises that were doing what they need to do to maintain the species. It was a wild and busy afternoon and one in which we all got to take pictures with tortoises in their native environment.

From here, we headed to a lava tube and took stairs under ground to walk amongst the location where millions of gallons of hot lava traversed under the islands to reach an exit point at the ocean.

It was a great afternoon, but now time to return to the ship as it was nearly the end of our cruise and time to prepare for packing up and saying goodbye to the islands that shared so much in such a short, but memorable, time.

Before dinner this evening two special presentations were made – one by the staff that performed two traditional folkloric dances, along with a special slide show of pictures taken during the course of the trip. After the slide show, we were each presented with a special gift and then the entire staff of the ship came out to wish us a fond farewell, the captain held a toast in our honor, and we headed downstairs to the Darwin restaurant for our final dinner aboard ship.

Andres once again outdid himself and we closed out the trip with amazing food, wonderful company, and we said goodbye to our dining staff. Andres provided Darin with a great sendoff with the presentation of one of every desert on the menu. So it was his responsibility to finish off the strawberry ice cream, blackberry sorbet, grand mariner soufflé, and cheesecake. And that’s how the last supper aboard the Xpedition ended.

We headed back to the room to pack our bags and to have them out in the hallways for pickup early the next morning. It’s almost time to go, and though we will miss the islands, the staff, and all that we have seen, it is an opportunity for others to experience this place that is so memorable for themselves.

Basilica in Quito, Ecuador

Basilica in Quito, Ecuador

On the Beach with Turtle Nests

On the Beach with Turtle Nests

Arrival at Baltra Airport, Galapagos

Arrival at Baltra Airport, Galapagos

Bartolome Island, Galapagos

Bartolome Island, Galapagos

 

May 24, 2009 – Day 10
Disembarkation, Baltra Island, Flying back to the mainland, & Quito

We were up early this morning for breakfast in the dining room and slowly, and somewhat reluctantly made our way to the lounge from where we would be taking our final zodiacs back to Baltra island where this great adventure began.

About 9:15 in the morning, a couple of naturalists finally came into the lounge and looked at the 20-30 of us there and said, “Yes, it is time…” and so we walked out to the stern of the ship, boarded our zodiacs and made our way back to the dock and to the mini buses that would take us to the airport.

At the airport we had a little time to take one last pass at the souvenir shops and get our boarding passes for our flights. Darin hung out with some new friends at the airport as we prepared to board our chartered AeroGal flight back to Quito via Guayaquil.

Three hours later, we were back in the city of 2 million at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet. We checked back into the Quito Marriott and had a shopping tour that afternoon in a local market, which was a ton of fun bargaining with the locals for handicrafts, clothing, and other items for sale. A stop at a local art gallery was nice, but most items were a wee bit out of our price range, so we looked, but no purchases here.

Back to the hotel and cleaned up for a farewell dinner in the hotel’s restaurant with our fellow travelers as some of our friends took off later that evening. The rest of us headed off to bed with varying times of departure morning.

A New Friend at Kicker Rock

A New Friend at Kicker Rock

Sea Lion Pup, Fernandina Island

Sea Lion Pup, Fernandina Island

Stilt Feeding in the Water

Stilt Feeding in the Water

Galapagos Penguins at Bartolome Island

Galapagos Penguins at Bartolome Island

 

May 25, 2009 – Day 11
Quito, Ecuador and Heading Home

After a slow start, we all had breakfast in the bistro buffet and completed our packing to take a 1pm shuttle to the Quito airport. After a 5 step process to enter the airport, complete ticket and baggage check in, pay the airport departure tax, complete migration, and make it to our gate, we had a snack while dad picked up a quick massage, and we boarded our 4:11pm Copa Air departure to Panama, leaving on time and arriving exactly 90 minutes later. After arriving at our new gate and completing another carry-on luggage inspection to meet US regulations, we boarded our Copa flight 302 to Los Angeles. As I write this sentence, we are just about 3 hours away from touchdown, where we will spend the evening at the Four Points Sheraton LAX, and board a 2pm departure tomorrow afternoon to come home.

It has been a remarkable time and one that the log and the pictures really can’t do complete justice. This trip has certainly exceeded all our expectations and know that we are looking forward to the next great adventure to come.

Click Here to see the entire Galapagos & Ecaudor Photo Album and Slideshow

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