Tuesday, July 07, 2009

 

The Incredible Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

See the "best of" photos of the Galapagos.

As if Troy and I have not dived the best the world has to offer, there are still a few places (believe it or not) that we have yet to conquer. A few weeks ago, we marked one of the big ones off our dwindling list: Galapagos Islands! We tried to work this into our year trip but the timing of available diving liveaboards just didn’t work out. Let me tell you, the diving was unbelievable. We ranked it side by side with Cocos Island, Costa Rica as far as shark life goes but when you add in the overall fish and marine life, Galapagos is off the scale! There was a 15 year old diver with us and her family and we told her, “You got nowhere to go from here! You’ve seen the best and you’re only 15! Stop diving now!”

Before we got on our dive boat we spent a few days in Quito, Ecuador. As we’re heading to the hotel from the airport we received our first impression of Quito right away. You know when you pull up to a stop light in a busy city and little kids run up to your car selling newspapers or Chiclets or try to wash your window? Not in Quito. The little kids are flame throwers! Our taxi is at a stop light and we look over and see this kid spitting alcohol into a lighter and out explodes this huge flame! If we had been in the right lane I would definitely have paid $1 to see that again!

We met up with our dive group the next morning to take a walking tour of the city. Our first stop was in Old Town to go see The Basilica del Voto Nacional or in simple terms The Basilica. But first we had to get our entire group onto the packed trolley. When I say packed I mean the people of Quito could put the people of Tokyo to shame when it comes to how they pack themselves onto their public transportation. We missed the first two trolley’s because our group was just not forceful enough. Troy and I (the experts when it comes to packed transportation) told the group they were going to have to be brutal if they were going to get anywhere. The look of absolute horror on their faces was priceless when they realized they were going to have to give the old lady next to them a swift elbow to the ribs in order to get on the trolley. They did it, only to get off on the wrong stop!!!

Anyways, back to the church: it was gorgeous. It sat on top of a hill in the center of the city and could be seen from everywhere, considering it was the tallest thing around. Most of the city consisted of square, flat, boring buildings so anything that was not square stood out. Although i do have to say that in Old Town and around our hotel there were some great old colonial buildings. The first thing I noticed about it was the gargoyles. Actually, instead of gargoyles, there were turtles, iguanas, and birds lurching out of the side of the immense building. This church was enormous and completely open to visitors to climb and crawl all over it, which we did. There were steep ladders and wire mesh platforms that led up to the highest points of the tower. The part I thought was the craziest was once we got to the very top, there was a gate “open” that allowed us to crawl out onto a 2’ wide ledge that allowed an amazing, uninterrupted view of the whole city. I’m sharing this 2’ ledge with our friend, listening to him tell me about the last time he was up there pieces of the church broke off when he touched them. Ok, so maybe we shouldn’t be standing out here anymore. I’m not scared of heights but standing on that ledge definitely gave me the heebie jeebies! We spent the rest of the afternoon hop, skip and jumping around the town, throwing in a grande beer here and there. Oh, and paying $2 for a postcard stamp! What?????

A trip to Ecuador is not complete without a visit to the equator which we did the next day on our way to a local market in a small town called Otvallo. I found two things to be quite interesting: 1) At the equator both hemispheres star constellations can be viewed at night; 2) Ecuador is considered truly the center of the Earth because it is the only place (in ancient times) where the movement of the sun can accurately be monitored. Everywhere else the equator crosses is either in the ocean or is deep in the jungle. The things you learn!

Finally off to Galapagos Islands! After getting settled into our cabins on the Aggressor II and getting our dive gear set up we had our first dive of the day which is normally fairly boring because it’s mainly for everyone to get their gear straightened out and to see if there are any problems. Day after next we were going to be a long ways from civilization and if anybody needed a dive shop, today is the day. Like I said, usually it’s a boring dive but when you dive with sea lions nothing is boring! You never know when they were going to grab our fin, knock our mask off and play keep away with it or try and bite our face for a bit of entertainment! Gotta love an open mouth racing towards you at full speed and then turning away at the last minute! I swear I heard them laughing.

All of our time in Galapagos was not spent diving. We were allowed to have four land excursions. I know you’re thinking “You were allowed? And only four?” Let me explain… The Ecuadorian government keeps a tight rein on the islands (as they should) and are always changing rules regarding what tourists are allowed to do. Right now the government is in the process of changing policies so that if you are there as a diver, you are not allowed on land. If you are there as a land tourist, you are not allowed to dive. They have been trying to implement this for many years and luckily for us we were allowed to do both. Until we actually got on land to do our excursions we never knew if things were going to change on us at the last minute. One of our excursions we were allowed to do was to see the giant tortoises (more about them later). A few years ago when our dive shop went, they were not allowed to see the tortoises. This is what I mean by things changing.

Our first excursion was to see the sea lions on land, the marine iguanas, the frigates and the Blue Footed Boobies. The landscape was very desolate with bare, skeleton trees since the area does not get a lot of rain. When it is stated that the animals are not afraid of humans, it couldn’t be more true. We had to step over sea lions that were lying across our path, birds nested right next to the trail and mothers were not overly protective of their eggs. It was birthing season (is that right?) for the Blue Footed Boobies so we saw tons of babies everywhere. We saw babies that ranged in age from only a few hours old to several months. The babies that were several months were incredibly fuzzy and white and looked a little pathetic as they flopped their wings around as if they were alien appendages they didn’t know what to do with. What I want to know is why the Blue Footed Boobies have blue feet. Does it have something to do with attracting a mate? Is this natures version of Elvis’ blue suede shoes? I have to say, they were pretty cool. I kept telling Troy “Get a picture of their feet, get a picture of their feet!”

I loved going on the islands because they were all different from each other both in animals and in landscape and we never knew what to expect. Where one island had mainly marine iguanas (black, small, flat tail) another island had land iguanas that were much bigger with colors that varied from brown to yellow to orange. They were also fat which made me want to grab one and squeeze it. I don’t think our naturalist would have liked that! “Senorita, put the iguana down now!” The islands landscapes varied from looking as if we’re on the moon (did the moon have a boardwalk on it?), to islands with giant cactus with Mickey Mouse ear leaves and ground covering bushes with greens, reds and oranges. I did get tired of the smell quickly though. Between bird guano and seal poop it was enough to make us be glad we were back on the boat. One island did have a small colony of penguins. When I say small, I mean like 40. How lonely is that? We had an opportunity to go snorkeling with them but Troy and I did not want to get geared up in our drysuits just to go snorkeling so we tagged along with the other swimmers on the panga with beer in hand.

After our diving and before we headed back to Quito was our last opportunity to do a land excursion and this was to see the famous giant tortoises. We could have visited the Charles Darwin Research Center but our trip leader (who has been to Galapagos before) said that going to a tortoise farm would be better. He was right. When I say farm, it’s not a farm where they are raised in captivity. These tortoises are wild and just happen to be on some man’s farm. They don’t move fast or very far so they have been here forever. We saw dozens of them with many being over 100 years old and the huge ones weighing in at 500 lbs. They definitely didn’t like people too much. As soon as we got near them, they pulled in their giant heads as much as they could and made this evil hissing sound that made us think twice about getting too close. Even though we would be able to outrun them (I would pay to see them run), they could, without a doubt, tear a limb from us with one tug. Like their name says, they are giants and utterly fascinating to look at up close. From the patterns on their shells, to the scales on their legs, to the drool coming out of their mouth, they were absolutely gorgeous in their own way. I suppose Troy could be gorgeous in his own way if he had drool coming out of his mouth!!!

Onto the diving! This is what we came for and paid a lot of money to do. Not to mention making fellow divers envious. I already told you about our first dive with the sea lions. It only got better from there. The most famous places in Galapagos to dive is Wolf and Darwin Islands. Only four dive boats are allowed there and we figured roughly 3000 divers a year go to these two islands. It’s about a 12 hour ride out from San Christobal and no one is allowed on the islands so the only people that go here are divers. There are no day boats with tourists with floppy hats, sunscreen, guide books and loud voices asking where the bathroom is. It was only us and the other Aggressor dive boat. Our first dive on Wolf Island lived up to the Galapagos reputation: dozens and dozens of Hammerhead sharks, Galapagos sharks (which are huge), Spotted Eagle Rays and an annoying number of eels. Everywhere Troy and I have dived, eels are always hidden away in their holes in the reef. The only thing you see is their head or their tail. Only rarely will we see them out free swimming. Not at Wolf and Darwin Island. They were out swimming everywhere and they were fat! “Senorita, put the eel down now!” There was so much else going on that they actually got to be a little annoying as they swam around us as we’re trying to watch the Hammers.

There was one point on a dive we thought a huge storm cloud came in and blocked out the sun because it got very dark all of a sudden. Troy and I looked up and a massive school of Jacks was swimming by. They were so thick they blocked out the light of the sun. We’ve seen big schools of fish but nothing like this. The best part was when we swam away from the reef into the blue. At the end of every dive when we did this, almost the same thing happened every time: We would be about 30’ deep when coming toward us out of nowhere is 75 -100 silky sharks. They’re not scared of us so they start circling around us coming closer and closer with each pass. They’re not aggressive so we were never in any danger but it was a little unsettling knowing we’re in the middle of nowhere, hours from civilization and there are about 100 sharks circling us! It was amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!! We didn’t want the dive to end. And then on top of that (as if that was not enough) here comes a huge school of Yellow Fin Tuna. These guys were monsters. Seeing them actually made me sad because I love sushi and I don’t think I want to eat it anymore! Oh wait and then there are the dolphins. Troy and I have always seen dolphins on the surface as we’re going to the dive site, but as soon as we get in the water, they’re gone. Not here! They were everywhere. We could hear them chatter, we would stare at them as they zoom by, watch them leap out of the water, we could even hear them fight as they would tail slap each other. Now that is a weird sound.

But unfortunately there were times where we were at the wrong place at the wrong time. The other dive group saw a Whale Shark three times. A Whale Shark is the mother lode of diving. People dive their whole lives without seeing one. Our dive group saw one but only for a short time until one of the other annoying divers got too close and scared it off. Ass. We were also at the last dive site at the end of the trip when the other dive guide saw a school of about 50 rays swim by. We were at the wrong place by 80’ and the wrong time by mere minutes. But that is the nature of diving.

Before we left Quito, we had one last little bit of excitement (if that is what you want to call it). As most of you know, Troy and I collect masks from all over the world. In Otovallo we got an awesome one that had six bullhorns on it. When we left Quito for Galapagos I didn’t think about leaving it behind at the hotel we would be staying at upon our return. So as soon as we arrive in Galapagos and start going through customs I think to myself “There is no way they are going to let this mask in since it has animal parts on it.” They didn’t even give it a second glance since it was wrapped in paper. I thought I was home free after that. Not so. We get to the Quito airport to fly to Miami and that is where I ran into problems. As it comes out of the x-ray machine, a security agent pulls it aside and shakes her head. She then escorts it and us to our departing gate where there is a more thorough security screening. I ask Troy if the problem is because it’s made of animal and he says no, they think it could be a dangerous weapon. "Headline: LAN Ecuador Flight Hijacked By Man With Bullhorns." Anyways, she has a discussion with the gate security agent, both of them looking at the horns and shaking their heads. I’m getting mad because this mask wasn’t cheap and I wanted it. Troy on the other hand is keeping his cool and a constant smile on his face (if there is one thing he has learned in all his travels is that getting angry does nothing). I’m thinking they’re going to confiscate it. Instead the security agent tells us to follow him. We follow him through a secure door, down stairs and outside to where the baggage is getting loaded on to the carts that go to the airplanes. Troy and I are a little shocked because this would never be allowed in the states. So we walk over to where the heavy hitters of airport security are with their camouflage (camouflage at an airport?), big guns and heavy, black boots. They’re looking at the mask and laughing at it. At this point I’m relieved because even if we can’t carry it on, our checked bags are nearby and we can pack it in them. Next thing I know one of the security police takes out his Swiss Army knife, cuts away the paper and starts digging into the glue that is holding the horns onto the wooden mask. All of a sudden things are not funny anymore as I realize he is checking for drugs. Troy and I are both thinking “If they have any doubt at all, we’re screwed! We are totally f**ked!” I’m holding my coffee cup with a shaking hand and Troy is wiping the sweat off of his brow during all of this. The police tastes what he has scraped off and nods his head. Ok? What does that mean? Ok, there are drugs, arrest them. Ok, it is nothing. What??????????? He hands the mask back to the first security agent and tells us ok. OK, what????? I’m still not getting an answer to this very important questions. He then says, it’s ok, you can go. Whew! Talk about excitement that really wasn’t so funny!

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