This morning we had to wake early in order to catch our flight over to the Galapagos Islands. The flight went via Guayaquil, with a short lay over.
Before leaving the hotel, we met up with a few other intreped explorers, a number of whom informed us on route to the airport that they suffer badly from travel sickness; one apparently filled 5 bags on route to Quito. Cue a huge sigh of relief when we found out they were on another boat!
There turned out to be one guy in our bus who would be spending the week with us: Dorn, from San Diego.
The plane journey was uneventful, and we landed in the Galapagos Islands a little over two hours later, handed over the 'national park tax' ($100 for every visitor - to help maintain the islands/fill the airport staff's beer fund), and commenced the trip to the boat (via two buses and a small boat. This trip took us from Isla Baltra (airport) via (small) boat to Santa Cruz and then via bus across Santa Cruz down to the harbour of Punta Tamayo.
The boat is a 30 metre long motor powered cruiser, staffed by 6 - the captain, engineer, backup captain, chef, our guide and Jonathan, who looked after our quarters, and us during dinner times. Able to host 18 guests, there are just 7 on tour: Greg and Marion, from the south east of France, Rob, from Germany, Dorn, from San Diego, Waens, from Switzerland, Reagan and myself. Our ages range from early 20s to early 40s; it's a good, compatible group; everyone's up for a laugh, able to speak fantastic English (puts me to shame!) and game for an adventure.
The guide, Mauricio, came across as grumpy; we'll be spending a lot of time with him over the next 5 days, so we hope he cheers up.
Our first excursion was supposed to be a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Centre, where we'd be able to see giant tortoises and land iguanas in captivity. An alternative trip was suggested where we head to the highlands and see giant tortoises in the wild. Everyone voted the latter.
Some back story: When the Ecuadorian government was handing out land so people could live on the Galapagos Islands, the land was free. The only restrictions were that only 10% of the land could be used for farming and inhabitation; the rest must be left natural so the wildlife can thrive.
Recently, one of the islanders opened his land to tourists. He's based in the highlands (green area) and over his land the giant tortoises migrate to the lowlands to breed. Within the first five minutes of arriving, a grazing tortoise crossed our path. 'Giant' is indeed the right word to describe these animals. The one in the pictures weighs ~350kg.
As these tortoises have only been studied properly since 1972, not much is known about their life-cycle. No-one knows exactly how long they live, when or even if they stop growing, or how many offspring they can have in their life time. It is known they're not fertile until their early 20s, and it takes 2 years for their shells to harden enough to deter predators.
Over two hundred years, around half a million tortoises have been killed here. There are now only thirty thousand left. On Santa Cruz, there are 3000 tortoises born in the wild each year. Of these, 0% make it to two years of age. 0%! If it were not for the activity of the research centre (which breeds them), they would die out. It is unknown at this stage how many tortoises need to be born in the wild for the population to become self supporting.
After the sobering tortoise lesson, we walked through a lava tunnel. A lava tunnel is a naturally formed tunnel in the earth made by lava forcing its way through and leaving a self-supporting structure in its wake. The small section we traveled through was part of a 40 mile tube which runs the length of the island. The land owner had run some cables through and provided lighting so we could see our way. It was extraordinary! We then head back to the boat.
Our regular dinner time on this trip is 7pm, so we eat and then depart, en mass to the shore for one last night in a pub. Despite valiant efforts from us all, by 9pm we wanted bed so all jumped on the dingy back to the mothership. When saying good night to people a while later, a pelican was spotted sitting on our dingy.
While we sleep, el capitan will navigate for four hours to the island of Santa Maria.