by Betsy Herbert
May 2, 2016
My flight into Mariscal Sucre Airport, just outside of Quito, Ecuador, was undoubtedly the scariest of my year-long journey around the world. As the plane en route from Buenos Aires approached Quito--nestled at 8,200 feet in the Andes--I at first enjoyed the birds eye view of this unusual city. The buildings of Quito snake up the sides of the huge peaks and around the lips of canyons that wind between them. The airport runway sits atop a long narrow ridge top, edged on either side by steep canyons.
But I stopped admiring the scenery as we neared the landing strip; the winds were blowing fiercely, buffeting our big jet from side to side. Just 5 - 10 feet above the runway, the plane was wobbling so much that the pilot suddenly nosed it up, goosed it--and as we all hung on to our seats--he urged the plane slowly upward in preparation for another landing attempt. For the next 10 - 15 minutes as we circled the airport the heavy winds continued. I dug down into my day-pack, retrieved a Lorazepam--which I kept on hand just for such occasions--and downed it.
Thankfully, on the second attempt we landed smoothly. I was grateful that I would live to set foot in Quito, my stepping stone to the glorious Galápagos Islands of Ecuador.
Onwards to the Galápagos! I spent the next two nights in Quito, mostly preparing for my upcoming eight-day Galápagos voyage. Then I took another flight from Quito to the tiny Baltra Island, one of the 19 islands of the Galápagos archipelago, 563 miles west of continental Ecuador. The archipelago spans both sides of the Equator.
The Galápagos Islands have long been a draw for me...first, because they are the site of Charles Darwin's epoch journey on the HMS Beagle, where the strange wildlife endemic to this place started Darwin's wheels turning about natural selection and the theory of evolution. I wanted to see those strange animals and imagine being in Darwin's shoes.
I also wanted to see the Galápagos Islands because my brother David, who passed away near the beginning of my trip in April 2015, visited there many years ago and fell in love with it and all its strange animals. David was an eccentric; very smart, but mostly lacking in social skills. He passionately loved animals, both domestic and wild. He was always most interested in creatures that humans commonly consider ugly and strange--such as moles, lizards, snakes, spiders, and alligators.
I was eight years old when David was born. I remember the very first words out of his mouth: "Tyrannosaurus Rex." By the time he was three, he could describe and recite the Latin names of most dinosaurs known to science. David was especially fond of the marine iguanas of the Galapagos, I think because they reminded him of dinosaurs.
I hoped to see some of what David saw when he visited the Galápagos Islands.
Boarding the Nemo III. As soon as we landed at the airport on island of Baltra, we proceeded to the docks to board the Nemo III, a 75-foot catamaran that would be our home for the next eight days as we sailed to many different islands. I felt blessed to find out that I would have a private cabin on the Nemo III, since there were only seven paying guests on board.
As soon as we boarded, we were off to explore the deserted beaches of Las Bachas, just across the channel on the north shore of Santa Cruz Island. When we went ashore, we saw the foot prints and trails of many Pacific green turtles, which had been actively building nests the night before in the fine white sands made of decomposed coral.
After exploring the beaches for an hour or so, we got back into our Zodiac and zipped back to the Nemo III.
After a great meal on board and an overnight sail, we reached Isla Genovesa, the most northeastern island in the Galapagos archipelago. There we would encounter red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, the frigate bird, and marine iguanas.
As we climbed up a steep wooden staircase on Isla Genovesa, we encountered dozens of Naxca boobies, such as the one pictured below. None of the birds on the island showed any fear of humans, so we were able to get close enough to take great photos without a telescopic lens.
Below is a quick video I took of the Nazca boobies, so you can see how special they really are!
Also on Isla Genovesa, we observed many of these rare red-footed boobies, pictured above. You can see the bird's red feet wrapped around the branch it's perched on.
Frigate birds followed our catamaran as we cruised, and as we came ashore, we could see them up close in all their glory. The males puff out their bright red throat pouches in order to attract females.
Along the coastline of Isla Genovesa, the jagged volcanic rocks that extend underwater are great for snorkeling. We had a perfect day of it, with the water crystal clear and calm, and with fur seals curiously approaching us to peer into our masks. There were also countless tropical fish.
Santiago Island's volcanic formations. The next day we headed for Santiago Island to experience some strange and wonderful lava formations.
Then we went ashore on another part of the island, where we went snorkeling and were lucky enough to find some penguins and Pacific green turtles to swim with.
Snorkeling surprises. The high point of my snorkeling, though, was when I was swimming about two feet below the surface and heard a loud banging noise. I thought at first it was a boat slamming into a rock, but then I realized that it was the noise made by a frigate bird as it slammed head first into the water and dove like a rocket right in front of me. It snatched a fish in its beak and then rebounded to the surface. This all happened in about two seconds, but it was unforgettable. No photo, though!
Now it was back to Santa Cruz Island to the small town of Puerto Ayora, the only place in the Galapagos where you can find an ATM machine and stock up on personal supplies. Pelicans and sea lions are everywhere in Puerto Ayora. We found sea lions snoozing on park benches and on the front stoops of stores! Pelicans love to stand around the fish stalls, where people throw them fish heads and tails.
Astounding efforts to protect and restore native habitat. Our main destination on Santa Cruz Island was the Charles Darwin Research Station, where we would observe giant tortoises, which are being bred to help restore the native populations. Our guide told us of the historical practice of sailors capturing giant tortoises here and then bringing them on board their ships where they would end up as dinner for the crews. Since tortoises can go for long periods of time without eating or drinking, they could survive on board until they were slaughtered.
The museum on site at the Charles Darwin Research Center described the threats to many of the species on the Galapagos Islands, and the ongoing efforts to protect and restore native populations of giant tortoises, land iguanas, finches, and other endemic species.
Now that the hunting of tortoises and other endemic species has been largely stopped, the worst remaining threat to their existence is invasive species, especially goats, cats, and rats. These invaders have accompanied humans coming to the islands, either as settlers or tourists.
Many millions of dollars have been spent eradicating these invasive species under programs overseen by the research center and the Galapagos National Park Service.
A change of scenery. We set out for the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz for a complete change of scenery. Here we found a lush and humid cloud forest, dominated by scalesia pedunculata trees. Orchids, mosses, ferns and lichens thrive here. The trees catch the fog rolling in from the sea, and the fog supplies a water source for endemic species such as the Galapagos giant tortoise, even during the driest time of the year.
When humans arrived in the islands bringing pigs and goats, the introduced animals devoured the native trees. When the cloud forest was decimated, the fog drip disappeared, leaving the giant tortoises literally high and dry. Since then, huge restoration efforts have successfully eradicated the goats and pigs, and the forests have started regenerating. We found several giant tortoises and land iguanas enjoying their native habitat.
Who'd a thunk it! Flamingos in the desert! On day 6 of our cruise, we sail to Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands, and one of the most recently formed geologic areas in the world. We hike from the beach across black lava fields where we can see active volcanoes in the distance.
There, in glorious contrast to this stark landscape, we find beautiful blue lagoons and a flock of wild pink flamingos!
Then on the next to the last day of our trip, we sailed to Isla Fernandina, which to me was the most beautiful and fascinating of all the islands.
The La Cumbre volcano erupted here in 2009, and as you walk along the lava fields extending into the ocean, you find piles of marine iguanas basking in the morning sun, penguins, flightless cormorants and hundreds of bright orange Sally Lightfoot crabs. It's also a haven for blue-footed boobies. As we snorkeled, we found ourselves in the midst of big green sea turtles and diving sea lions.
On the last day of our cruise, we sailed around Isla Daphne as the sun was rising. This tiny island is the site of some of the most exciting scientific research in the world about natural selection and evolution. I had just finished reading a book about scientists Peter and Rosemary Grant and the story of their groundbreaking research (The Beak of the Finch: A story of evolution in our time, by Jonathan Wiener, 1995, Vintage Books).
As we sailed around this tiny island through shark infested waters, it was mind-boggling to think about their repeated trips here over the years, how they could have landed here, hauled their supplies up the steep cliffs to set up camp on the top, and still keep their rigorous schedules and conduct their work to the highest scientific standards.