Those who've already read a version of this text may wish to jump ahead to the pictures (greatly improved):
Dear Family, Friends, and other readers,
We're safely home after a wonderful trip to the Galápagos Islands. What an adventure for the stay-at-home-Loughmans!
We flew on Continental (using Kay's FF miles) to Quito, where we overnighted before continuing to Baltra Island in the Galápagos archipelago. From Baltra, a combination of bus and ferry rides took us and our naturalist to Santa Cruz Island where we started immediately to learn about flora, fauna, geology, and history. We drove and walked through highland and agricultural areas, stopping mid-day for a leisurely meal at a rustic inn. In the late afternoon we were delivered to the Hotel Galápagos in Puerto Ayora where Bill and I had a room opening directly onto the rocky shoreline. Although the first species we saw in quantity were Great Egrets and Yellow Warblers, we knew we weren't in Berkeley any more when a Marine Iguana walked across our doorstep!
The following morning we visited the Darwin Station to see Giant Tortoises involved in captive breeding programs. It was here we also saw our first Land Iguanas - in pens. We had one hour of free time for shopping, so if you receive a postcard from us you'll know it was purchased and mailed on that day. After lunch we had a long boat tour of the Puerto Ayora harbor, then boarded the ship which was to be our home for the next week.
The Reina Silvia is a 90 ft.yacht, designed to accommodate 18 passengers and a crew of 7. Our group included only 10 guests plus a naturalist; so, although the cabins were tiny, there was plenty of space in the public areas. The other passengers included a middle-aged couple from New York, a grandmother/grandson pair from the San Francisco peninsula, two young European women who met while travelling with backpacks, a 45ish male travel professional from Virginia, and a younger male travel professional currently living in Chile. The latter four had met prior to the trip and spent much of their time together. We had wonderful food and very friendly, attentive service from the crew. Attention to safety was evident, but never heavy-handed. Most people went barefoot most of the time, and dressing for meals seemed to involve - at best - combing one's hair. Each ship's itinerary is determined by the Galápagos National Park Service, which also maintains the trails on which visitors are allowed to travel. In an effort to prevent inadvertent transfer of seeds between islands, shoes are inspected and cleaned regularly, and bodily eliminations are allowed only on board the ship. Most of our ship travel was at night. A typical day involved a morning walk on an island, snorkeling, lunch and siesta, and another walk on the same or a different island. In the evenings our naturalist described the next day's activities, including expected species and whether we would have dry (wear shoes) or wet (roll up pant legs, carry shoes) landings. Over the course of the week we visited nine more islands (Genovesa, Isabela, Fernandina, South Plaza, North Seymour, Bartolomé, Santiago, Floreana and Espanola) and cruised slowly past Daphne Major where the Grants did their long-term project on Darwin's Finches. Every island had something new to offer in the way of geology, flora or fauna.
Although one of the other passengers knew something about birds, I was the only real birder on the trip. The naturalists* made sure I got to see everything possible, and they made sure everyone else got to see as much as they wanted. My trip list includes 50 bird species, 39 of them lifers. *(Originally Daniel Fitter on Baltra and Santa Cruz Islands and Pepy Madunich who joined us on the Reina Silvia. Pepy was injured on the third day after slipping on wet rocks and had to be evacuated. Her husband, John, replaced her in an almost seamless transition.)
We didn't do it, but most of the other passengers went snorkeling every day. They saw lots of interesting fishes; but for all, the highlight was swimming with penguins, young sea lions, and the occasional shark. One of the snorkelers reported with awe having seen a Blue-footed Booby dive past him, and continue 20 or more feet further down in pursuit of a fish.
In addition to the walks on tourist trails, we visited a private farm on Santa Cruz Island where the owner took us to see Giant Tortoises in the wild, and another farm on Floreana Island where some of the earliest European inhabitants of the island lived in a cave while they built a house.
Sea Turtles frequently (and once a manta) swam near our boat, and on two days we had large pods of Bottle-nosed Dolphins playing in the bow wave. On shore we saw a Hood Island Racer snake, Fur Seals, Land Iguanas, many subspecies of Marine Iguana and Lava Lizards. We were glad not to see any wild goats or pigs, as the park service is working to eradicate them. On many islands there were nesting birds very close to (or even on) the trail. Those right by the trail seemed inured to our presence; but according to our naturalists, the birds who do not encounter people all day every day are somewhat more skittish. We watched Waved Albatross pairs engaged in their very intricate courtship rituals, and saw chicks of many species, at every stage of development.
Neither of us is well-versed in flora any more, so we didn't "take good notes" on those things. But we did see plants we could almost recognize. A tree(!) form of Opuntia had trunks up to 2-ft through and "paddles" starting well over a person's head. We know Opuntia as "beaver-tail" or "prickly-pear" cactus. In the US it can grow very large, but always starts low to the ground. On some coasts we recognized Mangrove trees. In one place we saw a sort of "trumpet-vine" sporting hundreds of huge blossoms. Most of the other plants were quite foreign to us. The majority (still) are native to the Galápagos (endemic); many occur only on one or a few of the Islands. A version of Passion-flower likely is an "exotic", probably brought in by human settlers. Yes, the Galápagos have that problem too - invasion by non-native species - which is why the Islands are the subject of intense conservation efforts.
We had very good weather throughout, with no rain, and only two brief periods of garua (a dense, wet fog). The temperature ranged between 60 and 80 F, with humidity tolerable most of the time. At this time of year (Winter there!) the water temperature is cold enough that wetsuits are required for snorkelers. But the equatorial sun is strong, regardless of the temperature. Bill wore long sleeves, long pants, a hat and sunglasses all day every day, and still suffered from the light. I wore shorts and Tevas a couple of days and got my feet sunburned, despite using lots of high-potency sunscreen.
Back in Quito for a day, we took a bus tour of the colonial section of the city where we saw ornate churches and impoverished citizens, then went to the Equatorial Monument outside the city. A small ethnographic museum there might have been interesting to visit on a weekday; but Sunday crowds rendered it an ordinary tourist attraction.
Our Galápagos tour was through INCA, an Emeryville company that's well respected in Latin America travel circles. They certainly took good care of us - something we really appreciated since we don't speak Spanish and our international travel experience is almost nil. We'd gladly travel with them again.
Bill took lots of pictures (slides, prints, digitals...). About 60 can be viewed here: