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Aida Maria Travel Review: Cruising the Galapagos Islands

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Les and Heather Bunce booked a last-minute Aida Maria Cruise with Andean Trails to cap off a 5-month tour of South America.

 

Read Les’ excellent blog and pictures from his week in Galapagos.

Galapagos Islands, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Les, Heather

Les and Heather

 

Setting the scene

The sea before me is coloured a pale deepening to deep azure blue banded with black volcanic rocks at intervals under the surface.

My personal booking agent has nabbed what must be the best room in town, windows on two sides and a balcony where I’ve written this piece without moving from my chair, looking straight out over the sea.

Galapagos Islands, blue footed Booby

Blue footed Booby

 

In front is the open ocean and the next piece of land directly in front of us is the Antarctic. Just to our left, Brown Pelicans and Blue-footed Boobies dive at what seems like dangerously high velocity into the water, looking for an early fish supper. Angular, prehistoric looking Frigate birds drift across, apparently aimlessly but with a very keen eye for a victim.

A turtle has just lazily paddled its way across from right to left and further out a Marine Iguana has swum left to right. I’m not making it up.

Galapagos Islands, Isabela, Hawksbill Turtle swimming

Hawksbill Turtle

 

Life aboard

Our very good guide was called Reuben, born and brought up on the islands who told us just enough but had more information if we asked. This wasn’t a specialised wildlife trip so everyone else would have been bored stiff if he’d done the ‘Total Wildlife’ talk.

There were some very early starts with us leaving the boat at 6.00 in the morning. Every day had three or four activities of walking or snorkelling and it was a pretty intense eight days.

Les, Heather on zodiac in Galapagos Islands

On a zodiac

 

Here it was very well organised in order to prevent overcrowding.  There are a limited number of allowed landing and snorkelling sites, it isn’t a go where you feel like place.  Boats are scheduled for different locations at different times and we never moored up with more than two other boats.  It was also unusual to meet any other group on a shore excursion so it did make us feel as if nowhere was busy.

We did get the very strong impression that the conservation here is taken very seriously indeed.   Litter is scarce and when on one island we saw some washing around in a tide pool eight feet or so below when we were standing, our guide climbed in and collected it all. He would also pick up any small pieces of rubbish as we walked around.

Santiago Island, young Mockingbird, Galapagos Islands

Young Mockingbird

 

Our on-board chef managed to produce three meals a day from a tiny galley for us sixteen passengers and the five crew which was a bit of a conjuring trick really. We had brought some snacks in case the food wasn’t to our taste but we ended up not eating any of our iron rations.

There was also enough space on board to get away from people if we wanted without going to our tiny cabin in which Heather kept her case on the end of her bunk.  We also learned to try avoiding taking a shower when the boat was moving because it moved in a lot of directions.

 

 

The wildlife

The first trip we did ashore from our boat was a dry landing from the Zodiacs (rubber dinghies with outboard motors) onto a wet, slippery jetty on an island called South Plaza. The solidified lava is lethally rough and sharp and over the eight days of this visit to the islands I shredded the outer edges of the soles of my walking boots on it.

Isabela Nazca Boobies, Galapagos Islands

Nazca Booby

 

This was our first opportunity to see how unafraid the wildlife is. Having developed from time immemorial without man to be frightened of, they pay us no attention unless we get very close.

We stand as a group of sixteen within a few feet of nesting Swallow-tailed Gulls, who ignore us. Three feet long land Iguanas ignore us. Marine Iguanas ignore us. The only Red-billed Tropic Bird we see on the entire five-month trip ignores us.

Galapagos Islands, Red-billed Tropic-bird

Red-billed Tropic-bird

 

Another island is visited in the afternoon, one with it’s own species of land Iguana. It ignores us.  This was a wet landing, which means getting out of the Zodiac into the water and wading ashore onto an idyllic sandy beach, golden sand for a change. The only litter was fifty or more sealions who If they didn’t ignore us did no more than cast a lazy eye in our direction and then go back to sleep.

There are of course many non-endemic creatures here, particularly seabirds. Lots of Grey Pelicans with what seem like ridiculously huge beaks which dive at breakneck speed into the water to catch fish. They’re also the most wonderful gliders, often in a line as they skim the surface of the sea riding and falling gently with the height of the waves beneath them. The Boobies dive in a similar fashion, bending their wings back to what looks like a dislocated angle as they hit the water.

Galapagos Islands, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, Marine Iguana and Heather

Marine Iguana

 

What we probably saw more of than anything else in the whole of the Galapagos were sealions. On the beach, in a tide pool swimming on their backs blowing bubbles, on the pavement, in the roads, under a stall selling fish, under a bench, on a bench. Everywhere.

Our guide told us that he was once briefing the passengers on a trip, realised they were laughing and there was a sealion behind him. It had got on to the back of the boat, climbed three steps and come in through the main cabin door.

 

 

Snorkelling

The water here is cold, bearable in places but when exposed to the ocean currents it is wetsuit temperature water. The first time I got in with a wetsuit, it was still so cold I nearly got straight back out again. The water also wasn’t particularly clear and there aren’t lots of lovely tropical corals to see.

Galapagos Islands, Fernandina, Marine Iguana swimming

Marine Iguana

 

However we did have some tremendous underwater sightings and the snorkelling was well worthwhile.

We aren’t snorkelling people but we certainly got more confident with it. We did have some spectacular underwater sights swimming with turtles, flightless cormorants, sharks, rays and even Galapagos Penguins

 

 

Thoughts about the trip

We visited nine different islands on our trip, some with relatively recent lava flows and fairly sparse vegetation to some with a good green cover and a good number of trees.   Some islands with lovely beaches and some with apparently no beaches at all.  Some islands pretty flat and others pretty hilly.  Indeed the highest point of the Galapagos is over 5,000 feet above sea level.  The islands were very varied but not the tropical islands of imagination as I said earlier.

Galapagos land iguana, Galapagos Islands

Land Iguana

 

The trip we chose was a good one and although intense we could have dipped out of any activity if we’d wanted to.  We just decided to get as much out of it as we could.  We saw pretty well everything we hoped for and some things we didn’t expect to such as photographing penguins and cormorants under water.  I was particularly taken with the shoals of Rays we saw from above and under the water.

Galapagos Islands, Swallow-tailed Gull

Swallow-tailed Gull

On our return to dry land Heather recovered by sleeping for twelve hours.  However, this was a voyage that was definitely not to be missed.  Our visit to The Galapagos really was one of life’s great experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

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