Right, the Galapagos: difficult to describe in few words!
Let’s start from the islands: there are many, 5 or 6 large ones, up to 50-60 Km across, and literally tens of smaller ones, islets as well as little more than emerging rocks.
Only 4 islands are inhabited, and only on Santa Cruz, where Shaula was at anchor in Academia bay, in front of the town of puerto Ayora, settlements cover an important portion of the island and are not limited to the town itself.
There are no “natives”, the islands were un-inhabited until they were discovered in the 16th century by none the less than the Bishop of Panama, who was sailing towards Peru and was brought here by the ocean currents (a bit off-course he was, the Bishop!).
The inhabitants are almost all Equadoreans, many of them immigrated illegally in search for work in the tourist industry or in farms: they made a lot of damage, importing literally hundreds of life forms (insects, plants, animals) that did not exist before in the Galapagos, but apparently the Equadorian government was unable to do anything about it (or could not be bothered?).
They use the american Dollar as their own currency, and this is telling a lot about the state of their economy….
Back in the 1930’s there were some settlements from Europeans, many of them Germans: notorious is the story of a baroness who installed herself and her two (!) lovers in Floreana, causing quite some resentment from two other German families who were already there, and then disappeared misteriously in a dark and stormy night together with her two boyfriends. One of the two was later found dead on a nearby island where apparently he arrived on a makeshift raft, and also many of the members of the other two families died misteriously, apparently poisoned…. ’30s soap novels, indeed!
Main features of the local inhabitants: they have no idea what “timeliness” is, and they are very keen at sucking as much money as possible out of tourists! ….but at least they are very kind, it must be said!
The islands are quite different from the image I had formed in my mind: they are volcanic but originated in different periods, therefore some are still barren while others had the time to be covered with some vegetation (typically, mangroves on the shore, little trees on the hill sides and just bush on the volcanoes).
Volcanic, therefore the ground is made of lava which may be of two types: flat slabs which are very easy to walk on, and what they call the “A-A” kind (meaning “ouch-ouch”) that is all irregular and very tough to walk on…
Very few beaches, and typically steep and beaten by the waves.
The result, as seen from the sea, is that of a savage, unwelcoming land: rocky shores, waves, and few beaches with a heavy swell: there are in fact some good anchorages, which were frequented in the past by passing-by whaler ships and today by cruise ships.
Wildlife, the main feature of these places:
On land, first of all, along all shores there are hundreds of sea-iguanas: they bask in the sun or occasionally rush to the nearest sand patch to dig holes where they will lay their eggs.
They swim, and are capable to dive down to 20 or even 30 meters to munch the vegetation growing on the submerged rocks.
They are much smaller than I had figured, say 2-3 feet of which half is the tail.
Main problem for the tourist: they are the same colour of the ground, and they defecate everywhere, so watch your steps!!
Inland, there are the land-iguanas: they are yellow instead of grey and, quite the contrary to the sea variant, they are very territorial and prepared to fight for their patch of land.
On the beaches but also along the rocky shores, sea-lions abound (sea lions and not seals, the main difference is that they have visible ears): as soon as you get close, they play dead, and they spend a lot of time sleeping in odd, funny positions.
We met them for the first time at the boarding station to go onboard the cruise ship: they were sleeping on the benches, in the shade, and did not care of the presence of the people!
…and what about giant turtles? In fact, it’s unlikely to see them in the wild, because they live in remote areas, moslty uphill where tourists are not allowed to go: the only one we saw were the ones kept in the Darwin Research Centre, where they are nurtured before bringing them back to their islands.
In the air as well as along all shores, birds of all kinds: the most characteristic are the so-called “Boobies” (“piqueros” in Spanish). There are three main variants: the “blue-footed boobies” that have indeed their beak and feet of a bright blue color, then the “red-footed boobies” whose beak is blue and the feet are bright red (they fly well offshore and are seldom seen on the beaches) and the “standard” boobies of which nobody cares!
They have a vaguely dumb look that makes them the tourists’ favourites, quite unlike the Frigates that are magnificent birds but look positively as the “bad guys” (and in fact they are very aggressive).
We saw very few of the Galapagos Albatross: funny birds, expecially when they court the females doing a sort of fencing with their beaks. We had a couple flying around Shaula for hours, and they seemed to communicate by means of rattling sounds made with their beaks.
Last but not least, the pelicans: they are HUGE beasts that fly retracting their long necks so that the head seems directly attached over the body making them look definitely like Pterodactils.
They fly in line, up to 10 birds evenly spaced 2-3 meters one after another, and when they dive for fish they look like a crash-landing (actually, they do not dive: the body remains on the surface and only the head goes down).
Quite unlike the boobies, that dive in straight line from high above and plunge straight under water where they spend several seconds before coming up.
By comparison, the sea life has been disappointing: the water was murky due to the swell, and the snorkeling trips were very disappointing for us, although we heard other crews that were more lucky.
The most notable in this area should be the hammerhead sharks, positively dangerous beasts that some crew managed to see at a distance, while we had to content ourselves with the baby sharks that were swimming under our boat in the Puerto Ayora anchorage!