One of the worst feelings is going into something knowing that you are more likely to fail than you are to succeed. Although these sort of sentiments should be avoided at all costs, every now and then they linger into our lives without any forewarning and are left to be dealt with in painstakingly fashion. Currently, I find myself in a position of similar nature:  I have a task laid before me, one that includes portraying the Galapagos Islands and all of its wonders to the best of my abilities, yet I know whatever path I choose in providing detail of this fantasy land will undoubtedly fail to do it justice. How can one fully portray the beauty of penguins swimming in the wild, along your side, as you snorkel over the tops of volcanic rocks covered with shoals of tropical fish picking the amber algae as it gently with the ocean current? How can you describe the sight of a sea lion colony resting on a golden shoreline as the turquoise blue waters move in with the tide and cools their furry bodies, sending a jolt of electricity through their interior that propels them into the water to perform flips, somersaults, and any other type of acrobatic stunt imaginable? Where do you begin in describing the contrast of landscapes amongst each island, some cloaked in dense forest whose foliage deceives the eye, concealing the enormous amount of wildlife coexisting within such arid temperatures, while others are exposed volcanic rock, dark black and jagged, mixed with high cliffs and volcanic shoots that take you back to the world of the dinosaurs? How do you define the essence of natural selection, the foundation of which was born from the Galapagos’s beauty and array of biodiversity,  without including the fact that these islands provide inspiration to all those who visit, not just Charles Darwin?

With such a daunting task, it´s hard to know where to begin. To start things off: The Galapagos are like any other fantastic set of islands you have been to, heard of, or could imagine, except that when you are relaxing on a white sand beach admiring the transparency of the water and its amazing tint of bright blue, there is a Sea Lion that casually strolls by, enters the water and begins to roll about like a child down a hill, when a family of penguins suddenly skim to the surface and begin dive bombing underneath, chasing whatever they can prey upon and that is within their reach, while various shoals of birds soaring above waiting to get in on the feeding frenzy. In essence, the most compact amount of wildlife and nature imaginable, probably on Earth, where the fact that each species uses the next as a means of survival is clearly visible.  I´ve decided to take things easy, recount as much detail as possible, and let the photos do the rest. As they say, pictures are worth a thousand words and these ones don´t fail to live up to the hype.

The last post I spoke about the pain my body was in, it’s slow decaying process caused by some foul food consumed in Peru just after coming down from the mountains. Physical discomfort being something one is constantly confronted with while traveling, I was able to move past these fleeting matters and immerse myself fully into the Galapagos mindset. What exactly is that mindset, you ask? It is the mindset of a great thinker, Charles Darwin, blended with the hard hitting wit of a young male from New Jersey, one whose passion for wildlife is limitless and whose tendency for ridiculousness is high. With these two forces combined, things got a little crazy in the Archipelago de Colon (scientific name for the Galapagos Islands, as 97% of the land is a national park of Ecuador) but only for the better.

A few days were spent, immediately after arrival, arranging for appropriate transportation around the islands. Much favoritism is given by fellow backpackers to purchase a seat aboard several of the boats which cruise around the islands, allowing those passengers who can and are willing cough up the money to experience a full range of wildlife, marine life, and volcanous terrain over an 8 day period without the discomfort of resorting to disjointed day tours where one spends most of the time commuting from island to island rather than on land itself. The benefits of such an excursion being quite clear, I began searching about for reasonable boats and prices soon after arriving Puerto Ayoro.  A small town, more so a village lining the sea, that was solely created to provide mainland access on Isla Santa Cruz to those fishermen and captains who needed to set foot on dry land after weeks or months of work, Puerto Ayoro could fit in the small of your hand if it weren’t for the mean bite of the local volleyball players and their tenacious attitude. Standing at a whopping 5’4 to 5’6, these gentleman play street ball that would never fly in your high school gym class.  Carries being secondary to the cursing and spitting techniques used to disrupt your opponent, I stood on the sidelines and admired these mens passion for victory each and every evening as I waited for my boat to leave two days after touching down. Having secured a vessel of adequate stature, with an itinerary of the best quality according to my limited knowledge of these things, I lingered about the city and nearly died of boredom as time went by excruciatingly slow (partly caused by my excitement to get on the boat and explore, the other cause being there wasn’t too much to do in a place composed of 6 streets). There was a highlight, however, and it should not be underplayed: Every evening I would sit on the dock, captured by the stars twinkling brightly up above and the playful images in the water below, as sea lions danced about gracefully and baby sharks trailed their shadows in the darkness of the green water illuminated by the brightness of the dock lights. It’s never bad to end the day with some eye candy that leaves you with a feeling reminiscent of having just woken up from the bliss of a dream, only to realize that you never fell asleep and had retained consciousness all the while, i.e. Surreal.

Once aboard my vessel, the Yolita II (apparently, the original Yolita sank a year or so ago from ‘technical difficulties’, which was not the best news to receive after jumping on board) I became familiar with my surroundings and my fellow passengers. A group of all different ages, primarily hailing from the United States (particularly the South), I felt more than comfortable in their presence and, as a result, group cohesiveness began to form immediately. Even without such a solid cast of characters, whose mannerisms, accents, and attitudes were a friendly reminder of a home I have long since visited, the trip was going to be phenomenal because nature’s finest was my main objective. Seeing as there was no shortage of what I was searching for and that each day was packed with activities, two on land and two on the high seas, I had no reason to doubt the capabilities of my voyage and what would be accomplished.  Through the assistance of a naturalist guide, I was ensured that while exploring the islands my understanding would increase tenfold in the most environmentally sound way possible, thus limiting any sort of impact my presence could have on such a delicate ecosystem (for a brief period of time I was worried my chemical deodorant would contaminate the water and effect some little fishies habitat, seriously).

We’ll start with the land adventures first, then move on to the underwater realm afterwards.

Things kicked off with a bang. The first evening was spent cruising along rocky waters until we reached our first destination, the tiny island of Rabida, and set foot on one of the Galapagos’ more remote areas.  Iron soaked shores, whose violent maroon cliffs and sand look as though lava is still running through them, and desolate earth covered with sparse amounts of brush and cacti, this place gave a first taste of the many wonders to come in the 8 days ahead. Along the shoreline there was a variety of birds and other animals resting on the angular rocks that protruded from the surface, most notably sea lions, marine iguanas (the only of their kind in the entire world), the occasional Blue Footed Booby, and a few Lava Heron. The funny thing is that these creatures are resting, not apart, but right on top of one another. You have marine iguanas piled 4 or 5 high, soaking up the sun and attempting to retain correct body temperature for their cold blooded bodies, as Lava Herons pick off minnows five feet away and a few sea lions flutter in and out of the water at the base of the rock where the iguanas lay. At times, these combinations could get even more outrageous. An entire extended family of Blue Footed Boobies standing on a ledge just above an large colony of sea lions or seals, whose skin is being cleaned by smaller lizards that bounce around their blubber, with penguins scurrying through the water and coming to rest just off to the side.  I need not continue with the examples, cause hopefully you get the point and also realize that I could go on forever.

Rabida was a good base line for comparing the beaches of each island, which tended to fluctuate as quickly as the wildlife in their shapes and sizes. Rabida, as mentioned earlier, is a distinct red from the iron that still remains in the grains of sand from the volcanic lava days. Easily noticed from way off shore, it catches the eye and refuses to let go. A hot red that radiates sunlight and heats up quicker than most other beaches I have ever been on, making sandals a necessary requirement. But from there, you can go to Bartoleme Bay and be witness to several tints that also deviate far from the norm. Off in the distance, looking down from a viewing point several hundred meters high, the landscape is bare and desolate. Massive crater like objects rise from the depths of this oddly shaped island, whose surface consists of more rock than anything else, the center of which appears to have been carved out by a cookie cutter in the design of two full moons.  The bays that have been formed as a result, with separate shores on each side and bright blue water in between, are surprisingly more different than similar given their close proximity to each other. On one side, you have a beach that is the essence of discomfort, the place where you do not want to find yourself washed ashore if the boat were to go down for it would be the worst sort of welcoming. On the ground floor there is sand as dark as night, the result of lava rocks that have decomposed over hundreds of thousands of years, then followed by the large, sharp rocks from where the sand originated a few more feet up the shoreline. The minerals glow when the sun hits on the sand, nearly blinding one who is standing awe struck by such a oddly colored beach with such intimidating features (unwelcoming to say the least). Then you have just across the way, no more than a quarter of a mile over the cool Galapagos water that fills the distance, to reach dark brown sands that appears to be a combination of the hot red and dark black of the earlier examples. Finely grained sands moistened by the water pushed ashore delicately massage your feet, providing refreshment from the sun’s heat as you creep along. Soothing the soul, and complimented by a gentle breeze that moves in from offshore, this beach glitters in the high noon hours. Speckles of white, black, brown, and silver illuminate when hit by the motion of the sun, bringing a motionless surface to life, leaving one temporarily more impressed with the landscape than the wildlife that is interspersed amongst it. Elsewhere, you have the standard picture perfect shores that you imagine in the Caribbean: On Espanola island, the white beach looks like bleach had been dumped on the finely granulated rock, soaking up all the color and leaving one blinded who dares to look in its direction. On these types, the sand was so delicate that it would slip through your fingers when you tried to grab it, almost acting as if it was impossible to disturb it in its natural setting or disrupt the inherent beauty of which it is a part.

I want to say this: Amongst many other reasons, the Galapagos Islands is one of the best places in the world because it is socially acceptable, in fact encouraged, to take photos of boobys in the wild. Trust me, I took full advantage of the opportunity while it was within my grasp. The Blue Footed Booby is a fantastic bird, one whose strange coloring is outdone only by its incredible in flight maneuvering abilities. One afternoon, a stray Booby was flying over the ocean and at high speeds, until suddenly it spotted something in the choppy waters that sat some 30 feet under his beak. Mid flight, at what I assume was top speed, the bird popped out its wings for brakes, glided through the winds and performed a back-flip in the most agile fashion, then allowed his momentum to carry it into the water as it prepared to dive, then surfaced three seconds later (after reaching some 10 to 15 feet below) with a fish in mouth and cruised along if nothing had happen. All of this transpired in the blink of an eye, yet impressive nonetheless. When the birds happen to be traveling in large groups and on the search for prey, which they are normally known to do, you better watch out. A vicious predator with a doubt, in large groups they are ruthless. In a flash they can go from migrating from one beach to another to all out attack, reeking havoc on the schools of fish with their dive bomber techniques and laying waste to all those who cross their path within split seconds. The neat part being that their attacks are coordinated according to a calling system that they have developed over time, so any onlooker can hear when the next dive will be taken by the loud shrill of the group’s leader. A very smart, very developed animal, one whose ruthlessness was never mentioned in my elementary Biology books or other studies covering the Galapagos.

The Booby is not the only notable bird that calls the Galapagos home. Any person who has studied Darwin’s theory of evolution knows that there are several types of finches that are endemic to this area. I think I managed to see nearly all of them in my time jumping from one island to another,  something around 8 out of the 12 that exist, if you consider two thirds not so bad. The finches are interesting, in my opinion, from their ability to reproduce and evolve at an incredible quick pace more than their feathers and good looks. Composing a nest only takes two weeks, for other birds it can take months, and incubating an egg takes 10 to 11 days, also something that takes significantly longer with larger animals, this diminutive species was made for adaptation. Since their lifespans are equally as short, lasting from 3 to 4 years (which may explain why their breeding process are only a fraction of the length of many other birds), the finches are forced to survive on the barest means in their immediate surroundings because migration to a more plentiful area would take far too much time and taxing for their dimunitive bodies. Each finch develops its own means of survival, a specialization according to the terrain, independent of other finches on other islands. For instance, the Vampire Finch (technically the Sharp beaked Ground finch) consumes the blood of large birds as the arid temperatures make insects and other small meals hard to come by. The Large Cactus finch, on the other hand, dwells in dry shrubbery primarily and feeds solely on cactus for its life’s nutrients. Meanwhile, the Small Ground finch that also inhabits shrub laden areas subsists solely from parasites off of the backs of Galapagos tortoises. Thus, although they are from the same species, these finches can differ tremendously depending on the landscape where they nest and breed.

The waved Albatross is the largest bird on the Galapagos. With wing spans of up to 7 feet, these birds are ginormous compared to the other types that reside in the Galapagos. Also an endemic species, the Albatross flies for up to 6 months without rest and is known as one of the strongest birds on earth. They happen to be romantic and loyal as well, only taking one partner for their entire lifetime and sharing the burdens of child birth (incubating, feeding, etc.) together. In the Galapagos, the Albatross does not take flight from the ground on a moment’s whim. Instead, they are required to slowly maneuver their way towards an area known as “Albatross Airport” on Espanola island, where they take off from the cliffs that rest some 150 feet above the ocean. Waddling across the rocky terrain, then coming to a halt just before the edge, the Albatross spreads its wings and falls face first towards the waves crashing on the rocks below, only to pull itself up second later and effortlessly glide out into oblivion. One after the other, while sun light remains, these birds can be seen leaving their breading grounds, heading to the cliffs, and capturing the winds underneath their wings by anyone fortune enough to catch them during their breeding season. Love fills the air on Espanola whenever their present, on the ground and in the air.

The Galapagos Tortoise is huge. Like really, really, really big. Bigger than any other turtle I have seen before by a gross margin. Having gone to the Galapagos and now seen for myself, I can safely say I grasp the concept of slow and steady that was the key theme from the children’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”. These friendly giants graze the highlands on various islands, living off of the dense vegetation that contrasts the desolate rock that is dominant amongst many other locations. With the possibility of living to 150 years, the tortoise takes his time doing pretty much anything in an effort, I assume, to conserve energy for the long hall. Deathly terrified of human beings in the wild, an adaptation that stems from the time when pirates and other seaman hunted them to survive when stranded in the Galapagos, but also a free spirit that is barely contained within its massive shell, a tortoise can be seen leisurely strolling amongst grass and other bushes searching for water, fruit, and a good place for a nap. An elegant animal, who holds long life and prosperity as the highest good, whose size and presence can only be experienced in the Galapagos.

There’s more land stuff to cover, but I don’t want to overburden myself or my readers who have made it this far with superfluous detail. Other notable land sights include:

1. Galapagos Hawks picking off Marine Iguanas as they came too far inland.

2. Mockingbirds mimicking the sounds of our tour guide to perfection on various occasions, on various islands.

3.   Pink flamingos soaring above then coming to rest in algea filled lagoons, a fortunate sight to witness especially considering these animals’ population does not exceed 700 throughout all of the Islands.

4.  Frigate birds’ circle of death around a baby sea turtle’s nest, then the beauty of watching the sole survivor escape into the depths of the ocean after crawling bravely across the sand without being noticed.

Now to take things aquatic.

Apparently, the beginning of June is one of the best times to be in the Galapagos. With hardly any rain, and the seas being  in their calmest state, the place begs tourists to come visit and explore her loveliness.  The timing factor having zero bearing on my decision to go (and particularly when) yet also being something I was able to enjoy, albeit by pure chance, every adventure in the ocean was remarkable.  The wildlife passes by like a slide show on marine biology as you ride the gentle currents, but lacks the normal boredom that usually follows when stuck in a classroom.

The Sea Lions, on shore, are gregarious characters. Loud, tired, and cranky, their movements vary from lethargic to none at all except for the occasional yawn. In the water, however, its a completely different story. They twirl and twist through the water, cutting through the rough currents with an enchanting dance, whose ripples are seen above and whose coordination remains for those fortunate to experience it down below. The waves roll over their tops, inevitably crashing on the shore, providing the champagne bubbles for such an act that is worthy of a joyous celebration. The Sea Lions push off the rocks on initial entry, darting into the direction of those with snorkeling gear in an attempt to create an audience as quickly as possible (done quite easily as you would expect), then begin with their array of tricks and acrobatic routines. It usually went like this: A barrel roll was followed by a circling maneuver to ensure that the crowd cannot escape, from there several flips were performed while moving at top speed until the second Sea Lion would come and pop over the first, only to result in the first Sea Lion jumping out of the water to vent the frustration of losing the crowds attention temporarily. Just plain Awesome, with a capital A.

Then every now and then when a Sea Lion didn’t feel like putting forth his best effort, keeping to himself mostly and enjoying a relaxing swim in the Pacific to cool off a bit, there was more than enough action elsewhere to keep someone entertained. Say, for instance, if you were to poke your ahead above water for just an instant you could easily notice a plethora of animals that are either 1. hunting for their midday snack, this group consisting of birds like Blue Footed or Nazca Boobys, Sea Gulls, the Galapagos Herons, or the occasional Hawk 2. resting and exerting as little energy as possible, this group being primarily Penguins, fellow Sea Lions, or Marine Iguanas. There were, of course, variations at times. A sea lion would be doing his thing, break dancing with his partner or partners trying to keep the audience alive, when a penguin would dart by and take over the stage. More timid, but also very friendly, the penguin is a great partner for snorkeling and maybe even the best on earth. For a rather heavy set animal of small stature, this guy can fly through the water, being one of the most difficult to keep up with. Yet, his liveliness and enthusiasm begs for one to keep pace, but you have no clue as to what will happen next. A slow flutter turns into a full speed dive against the current, breezing through the rougher parts of the water like a hot knife cutting butter, except every now and again he will glance back, or even turn around, to make sure you are still following. Then, suddenly, one penguin will meet up with his five companions that were just outside of your range of sight, whereby the full scale orchestration begins. Weaving in and out of one another, they speed off into the distance, turn around sharply, and begin the weaving pattern once again until you are dizzy from the excitement and their repetitive patterns. Even quicker than they began, the crew stops and places their heads over water, beginning to move like ducks across a tranquil pond as their afternoon exercises have been performed satisfactorily. Their proud stance when outside the water, like an emperor overlooking his kingdom at the height of his power, hints towards their satisfaction with the spectacle’s results: A crowd of humans gasping for air as they had forgotten to inhale during all the excitement..

Then, when the penguins and sea lions are no where to be found, the eye is attracted to the other wonders that lie on the ocean’s floor fighting for survival. An underwater paradise, in full meaning of the word, where shelves of tropical fish swim lay on top of shelves of rough lava rock, only allowing themselves to be separated only by the oncoming human (who they encircle) or next school of fish imposing their greater size, yet whose color compliments the sense of peace and harmony rather than disturbing it. As your body is being wrapped with the vibrating movements of hundreds and thousands of fish, you extend your hand to paddle forward and can feel the gentle brush of their tails on your skin as the journey through the abyss continues. The sun is hot, but the water neutralizes its affects, and leaves one wondering if the goosebumps are from the chill of the ocean or the world that you have become a part of momentarily, as your mind and body are slaves to the current and swept away by the sea. Adding to the tranquility, a Sea Turtle is seen off in the distance, moving slowly towards an unknown destination that is likely to be beach where she was born and will now lay her eggs. You and the turtle are being pushed closer towards one another, less than an arms length away, until she realizes your presences and gently directs her course elsewhere. Up and down she moves out of your sight, giving you nothing to hold onto except the memory of the experience in the years after and the satisfaction in knowing that she goes on, year after year, solely to continue the circle of life.

At other times, multicolored Starfish patched the oceans floor, specks of green algae and plankton fill the water, and red algae plants sway on top of the rocks that rest above the shifting sands. In between all of this, bright and vibrant fish move quickly in and out of their hiding places, allowing one to glance for a split second at the contrasting colors and patterns that are imprinted on their scales. The decline becomes more steep gradually, until you are nearly 20 feet above all of what was just 5 feet away, and now those fish whose skin was so enchanting can be hardly distinguished at all. That could also be a result of the massive school of mullet, some 5 to 10 thousand, that you swam upon and now obscures your line of sight. Dipping down below the bottom of the last fish to gain a better view, a group of White Tipped Reef Sharks move along the edge of the rocks with their tails swaying rhythmically like a metronome. They appear to be analyzing the possibilities of the situation meticulously, scrupulous in their selection of fish and a potential meals, as one would be if you were the least aggressive of your kind and this adaptation was a result of the lack of competition for food. No harm likely between yourself and the ocean’s fiercest predator, the tide separates your proximity as each of you goes your own way yet both equally captivated by the abundance of life that fills the area.

The fish I am 100% sure of having seen, meaning that many more were also seen but I was not sure of their characteristics when I was looking up the names of each on the boat after each snorkeling session, are listed below. You can look them up if interested:

1. King Angelfish 2. Razor Surgeonfish 3. Teardrop Butterflyfish 4. Pelican Barracuda 5. Galapagos Seabrew 6. Galapagos Muller 7. Stipped Mullet 8. Barred Snapper 9. Giant Damselfish (the juvenile stage being one of the nicest fish I have even seen) 10.Bumphead Damselfish 11. Panamic Sergent Major 12. Scissortail Chromis 13. Panamic Graysby Cabrilla 14. Leather Bass 15. Bumphead Parrotfish 16. Blue Chin Parrotfish 17. Bicolor Parrotfish 18. Azure Parrotfish 19. Spinster Wrasse 20. Black Wrasse 21. Giant Hawkfish 22. Bullseye Puffer 23. Galapagos Puffer 24. Stripebelly Puffy 25. Spotfin Burrfish 26. Finescale Triggerfish 27. Galapagos Drum 28. Reef Cornetfish 29. Trumpetfish 30. Tiger Snake Eel 31. Galapagos Snake Eel 32. Scalloped Hammerhead 33. Blacktip Shark 34. Whitetip Reef Shark 35. Peruvian Torpedo Ray 36. Diamond Stingray 37. Golden Cowray 38. Eagle Ray 39. Fur Sea Lion 40. Marine Iguana 41. Galapagos Penguin 42. Galapagos Sea Turtle

I want to say that any of the descriptions given can be mixed and match easily, for on various days it wasn’t one or the other taking place but it was a combination of many. It’s difficult to explain how phenomenal it all was, especially when you are caught up in the moment and can only try to combine bits and pieces after wards, but hopefully some notion of its magnificence has permeated amongst my scattered thoughts and reached the surface of your mind. I will never know for sure, so that ‘s why taking photos (and a whole lot of them at that) is helpful. Ideally, they will compensate for my lack of ability. You will be the judge.

Currently, I am in Panama City, Panama. Unfortunately, it turns out that I will not be going through Colombia as I originally planned. Certain family members will be visiting Belize in August and I have decided to meet them there around that time. With this decision being made on the road and abruptly, I was forced into a tough decision whereby I chose to leave Colombia out of the South America portion. Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador were phenomenal, and I am sure that Colombia would have been as well, but with the time constraints I decided to spend the two months before Belize exploring Central America, a land that I know nothing about, rather remaining on a continent where I had resided for close to a year. With either decision likely to result in a pleasurable experience, I am confident that Panama will treat me well along with the other countries I visit. I flew up here from Guayaquil, which was where I had flown back to after leaving the Galapagos. Things are good, life is solid, and I am excited to the Panama Canal. More updates to come soon, and more photos from the Galapagos will come sporadically over the next week. Until then…

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