Eleven curious, adventurous, and COVID vaccinated science educators and nature enthusiasts traveled to the Galapagos in July 2021. Led by Page Keeley (her 9th trip as a science education trip leader for the Citizen Ambassadors Program and Holbrook Travel) and her co-leader, Joyce Tugel. Our STEM Expedition was originally scheduled for July 2020 but due to the pandemic, it was postponed.
With our amazing naturalist/guide who grew up in Galapagos, Lourdes Pesante (LuLu), and the fantastic crew of the Bonita, we had a truly extraordinary experience. Now that Galapagos is opening up again, we were fortunate to be one of the few visitors here as a result of the decrease in travel due to Covid. Now that the Galapagos Islands have vaccinated their small population of residents, including the boat crews, we were ready to visit! Holbrook Travel, one of the best travel companies for Latin American eco-oriented, nature-focused travel, arranged my first trip when I visited the Galapagos in 1997 and once again, they put together an amazing experience for us. This was my 6th trip with Holbrook and 4th trip as a STEM Expedition leader with Joyce Tugel. In this time of the pandemic, we had the unique advantage of so few boats and other groups on the islands we visited. It felt like we had the Galapagos all to our selves and the animals “seemed so happy” to see us! I hope you enjoy this blog, share it with your family and friends, and inspire others to visit this magical, life-changing, unique, and special protected place on Earth. Thank you to everyone who shared their photos from the trip that were used on this blog – every picture tells a story!
We arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador from five different U.S. airports, late at night or in the wee hours after midnight. Our first day was scheduled on the mainland in case there were any travel delays. After catching a few hours of sleep and breakfast at the Unipark Hotel, we met our wonderful, local guide, Fernando Icaza, who took us on a walking tour of the lovely city of Guayaquil.
Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador. It is a port city known as the gateway to the Galapagos Islands. It is a vibrant, sprawling city with a beautiful malecon (river walk) along the Guayas River and hillsides dotted with colorful favelas. We happened to be there on the day of Simon Bolivar’s (Ecuador’s liberator from Spain) birthday which is a national day of celebration.
We started off with Fernando, to the “Iguana Park” across from our hotel where there is a large monument to Simon Bolivar. There were iguanas everywhere, up to a meter in length, sunning themselves among the beautiful gardens, statues, and lagoon and existing amiably alongside humans.They gave the park a special ambience! The caretakers of the park feed them lettuce everyday. I night they go up into the trees.
Walking through the city we saw many beautiful sculptures of Ecuador’s freedom fighters, celebrations of democracy and freedom, and depictions of everyday life in Guayaquil.
We continued to the Malecon (Spanish word for water front boulevard)- a wide pedestrian walkway along the expansive Guayas River. Beautiful art, trees, clock tower, fountains, and lots of families enjoying the day. We stopped for a photo on the Hemiciclo la Rotonda- a memorial commemorating the meeting of Simon Bolivar and San Martin to plan Ecuador’s emancipation from Spanish rule.
We walked to the end of the Malecon to the Santa Ana Hill. The Las Penas neighborhood is here- a place of colorful homes, restaurants, bars, and shops built into the steep hillside.
There is a blue and white lighthouse (colors of Guayaquil) at the top accessible only by climbing the steep 444 stairs which are numbered. Here you can get a spectacular 360 view of the city. Several of our group climbed all the way up the 444 steps (I opted for a slow walk 3/4 of the way up and a stop for a refreshing coconut popsicle!).
Next we took a ride in both directions on the Aerovia- over the large estuarine river and through the heart of the city. This 4 km long urban gondola with 5 stations was built to alleviate traffic congestion over the estuary bridge from Duran to Guayaquil and easily move people through the city. it moves 40,000 people a day and only costs &0.70 for a ride! Besides a clever way to deal with urban transport, it is also a fun ride with a spectacular view.
We were especially struck by the huge paintings high up on poles throughout the city thanking first responders of the Covid pandemic.
Then it was off to lunch in a cute open air cafe where we tried some Ecuadorian specialties, including vegan and vegetarian options. We were quite amused watching a man with long dreadlocks on an electric bike with huge handlebars and music playing riding around the plaza area.
Next we walked through the artists’ quarter of Las Penas. There were beautiful homes with colorful flower pots hanging from the balconies and murals painted on the walls. Several art galleries lined the street and boutique hatters selling Ecuador’s famous Panama hats- finally woven from toquilla straw by master weavers. Why are they called Panama hats if made in Ecuador? They got this name when they were made for the workers on the Panama Canal. Joyce bought a beautiful hat- the real thing, a work of art!
After a wonderful day to recoup from the previous long day of travel, a delicious dinner and sangria, we were ready to catch up on our sleep and leave for the Galapagos Islands in the morning.
We boarded a LATAM flight in Guayaquil for the 1 hour 55 minute flight to the Galapagos, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Excitement grew as we gazed out the window and spotted the islands appearing in the vast Pacific Ocean. We exited on the tarmac on the island of Baltra to enter immigration and go through the strict Galapagos National Park inspection and decontamination protocols, ensuring we were not bringing any products of plant, animal, or microbial origin that could be harmful to the ecosystem. We met our guide, Lourdes Pesante-Aguirre (LuLu) and immediately knew we were in good hands! We boarded a bus to get to the dock where we would be picked up by the pangas to board our home at sea, The Bonita. Crew members of the Bonita 16 passenger yacht welcomed us into the pangas and brought us to the Bonita where we had a tour of the boat, checked into our nicely appointed, air-conditioned cabins, and were introduced to the crew (who would become our trip family) in the lounge.
After learning the ship’s safety protocols and our Covid safety measures, we had a delicious lunch, starting with a hearts of palm ceviche, and then a buffet of amberjack fish, chicken, rice with peas and carrots, steamed broccoli, salad, and a dessert of coconut mousse (vegetarian and vegan selections also). It was evident that we would be well fed on this trip! We finished unpacking and settling in to our cabins, and then we cruised off to our first destination- Santa Cruz. The Pacific Ocean sparkled and we marveled as we passed Daphne Major- the site of Peter and Rosemary Grant’s 25+ years of research on the Galapagos finches which we read about in “The Beak of the Finch.”
We arrived at the northwest coast of Santa Cruz for our first hike- Dragon Hill. We stepped off the pangas on to a beautiful sandy beach with volcanic rock and walked to a lagoon where we saw our first flamingo and opuntia trees (prickly pear cacti with “trunks”).
We were excited to see our first marine iguana and Galapagos land iguana on the trail. Little did we know we would be seeing many of these throughout the trip!
We hiked up the hill where we saw numerous land iguanas and lava lizards. The Galapagos land iguanas look like dragons with their claws and spiky crests! They are so different looking from the iguanas we saw in Guayaquil.
The iguanas and their nests were once ravaged by dogs and are now are plagued by feral goats on the island. Fortunately there are ongoing efforts to remove them and protect the iguanas.
The trail was an uphill climb that passed through stands of opuntia cactus trees and palo santo trees (the incense tree) with a changing vegetative zone- very dry. We were rewarded with a spectacular view from the top- looking through the palo santo trees to our boat, the Bonita, and one other boat. Hiking back down we saw many more iguanas and birds such as the Galapagos flycatcher, Galapagos mockingbird, and the Galapagos finches. Pelicans were flying overhead on the beach. The sun was slowly setting casting a lovely light on the rippled beach. We climbed into the panga and set off for the Bonita- greeted with cold drinks, appetizers, and Steven’s never ending boombox of fun, lively music on the deck. We enjoyed a dinner of corn soup, grouper with coconut sauce (vegetarian and vegan entries as well), veggies, yucca, and a beautiful dessert followed by an evening lecture by LuLu.
With our glasses of wine and cocktails in hand, LuLu pulled up her slides on the large screen flat TV in our lounge and gave us a brief history of the Galapagos Islands and its people. LuLu was born on the island of Santa Cruz and is a lifelong resident. There are actually 136 islands but many of these are just rock jutting out of the sea. The Galapagos Islands and surrounding waters make up the the 3rd largest marine reserve in the world and are highly protected. 91% of the reptiles are endemic species with marine iguanas found no where else in the world. 79% of the mammals, 56% of the insects, and 49% of the birds are endemic. There was so much more to take in- Day one on Galapagos ended with awe, a beautiful sunset, and a gentle rock to sleep as we were lulled by the motion of the boat. What surprises will tomorrow bring?
The morning began as we met in the lounge for coffee and suddenly, Lynn spotted a pod of dolphins! LuLu yelled, “get in the pangas”, – we grabbed our life jackets and were off to follow the dolphins. They “played with us” coming right up alongside the pangas, surfacing and going under us- it was exhilarating!
What a fun, spontaneous way to start the day! After breakfast we motored around Bucanero Cove in the pangas to observe birds and sea lions. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Buccanero Cove was a stopping point for pirates, whalers, and Charles Darwin’s expedition to stop for repairs, freshwater, and tortoises for food. We went in and out of small caves in the cliffs. The water was crystal clear and we could see the sea turtles and sea lions swimming around us and lots of fish and red sea stars! Excited to see our first blue-footed boobies along with pelicans, brown noddies, lava gulls, and magnificent frigate birds soaring overhead. What looks like bare rock from a distance is teeming with life in its nooks and crannies. LuLu pointed out the formation called “Bishop Rock” (with its pointed bishop hat and hands folded as if in prayer) and near that is another rock formation that looks like an elephant if you use your imagination.
Approaching a large “white rock” promontory which we saw from a distance, we could now see that it was covered with guano. Colonies of Nazca boobies (formerly called the masked bobbie but renamed for the Nazca tectonic plate) and brown noddies occupied the cliffs.
We headed back to the Bonita where we were greeted with cold drinks and a snack and Steven’s lively playlist on the boombox. Roxanne and Steven showed us the moves- perhaps we should call this the Bonita Boogie! (Check out the video link-science teachers sure do know how to have fun!)
There was free time before lunch to kayak or paddle board around the cove. Interesting to see how the crew rigged up the “train of kayaks” to the pangas.
After a delicious lunch of Wahoo fish, we took the pangas to Espumilla Beach for our first snorkel. For some, this was their first time snorkeling. We were assigned our gear bags for our masks, snorkels and fins, and some instruction on snorkeling from Lulu. We landed on a sandy beach with ghost crabs scurrying away in all directions, and a nest of raucous, hungry baby pelicans waiting for their Mom to feed them. Off we went into the water with Lulu pointing out things to see. For me the big thrill was when Lulu pointed out a four foot white tipped reef shark cruising by and I was able to follow it for a short distance! We saw yellow-tailed surgeon fish, chocolate chip sea stars, parrot fish, and lots of schools of small fish.
After the snorkeling we got back on the Bonita to cruise to Egas Point. Egas Point was once the site of a salt mine. We made a wet landing on the black sand beach and were excited to see colonies of the marine iguanas sunning on the lava rocks and a nursing sea lion with her pup.
After drying off our feet and putting on our hiking shoes, we were ready to hit the trail that goes into the interior of the island and out to the rocky coast. With the view of the Bonita in the distance, we set off on the inland trail, spotting flora and fauna along the way: lantana (with white flowers), croton (LuLu’s Christmas tree), yellow cordia lutea, Galapagos mockingbirds, Medium ground finches, land iguanas, opuntia cactus trees, painted locusts, Galapagos scorpion, and more.
The inland trail led to the rocky coast and what a surprise! Colonies of marine iguanas everywhere. What an opportunity to see these unique reptiles up close, sunning, swimming, and climbing out of the sea. Marine iguanas are found only in the Galapagos, no where else in the world. They are vegetarians, feeding underwater on marine algae. They blend in with the volcanic rocks and when dry, you can actually see colors of red and tan as well. They have lips that look like they are smiling!
The rough volcanic rock made walking challenging in some areas. You could see the broken up plates of lava. There were numerous tide pools, grottos that formed deep pools where the Galapagos fur seals hung out, and basins where rushing seawater flushed in and out through lava tubes. We tasted the sea salt evaporated in the rock indentations.
In one of the grottos we saw several Galapagos fur seals. At first glance they are hard to tell from Galapagos sea lions. They are smaller, have a lusher coat, a shorter snout, and their ears stick out more than the flatter sea lions’ ears. Unlike the sea lions we have seen sunning on the beaches and rocks, the fur seals prefer the grottos with their caves, nooks, and crannies where they can keep cool from the equatorial sun.
Several birds were spotted including the Galapagos dove, American oyster catcher, yellow warbler, lava herons, whimbrels, pelicans, ruddy turnstones, and the rocks near the shore were covered with colorful Sally lightfoot crabs.
Before hiking back to the Bonita, we had our first meditative moment. LuLu had us find a quiet place to sit and for ten minutes we sat in silence, no talking, no photo taking, just observing, listening, and taking in the view of this amazing spot on Earth. It truly made us stop and appreciate how grateful we were to experience this unique and special place where humans and animals can exist in harmony with one another in a modern world in which humans have disrupted natural ecosystems
As we hiked back to meet the pangas, with a lovely view of the Bonita resting at anchor, the sea lion mother and her pup were still in the same spot. And the sun set on another beautiful Galapagos day!
After dinner we assembled in the lounge to receive our “blue feet.” Page and Joyce ordered socks from the Blue Feet Foundation, a non-profit started by a fifth grader to raise funds to support research on the Galapagos to protect the blue footed booby. The socks are made in Ecuador from organic cotton- a wonderful story of how a student learned about blue footed boobies in his science class and started a world-wide project to support them. Our photo will show up on the Blue Feet Foundation web site and is currently on their Instagram page. We all wore our blue feet while LuLu did our briefing for the next day and gave us an overview of Galapagos geology. And now we can measure up to our cabin attendant, Jesus, who wears penguin socks!
After sleeping with the hum of the engine through the night as the Bonita cruised past the eastern side of Isabella Island, largest island in the Galapagos, we awoke at Vincente Roca Point. Vincente Roca Point is located on the chin of the “sea horse” which makes up the shape of Isabella Island. After breakfast, the morning started off with a panga ride to see the Galapagos penguins and the cliffside geology, dotted with several species of birds. Landings are not allowed at Vincente Roca Point, but the view of the animals on the cliffs, caves, clear water with sea turtles and fish swimming by the panga, was extraordinary. As we approached the brown vertical cliffs, they became “alive” with birds (blue footed boobies, nazca boobies, brown noddies) and densely packed groups of marine iguanas.
We meandered in and out of the caves along the cliffs and marveled at the cliffside geology. Lulu explained how the constant weathering and erosion of the cliffs from the wind and the crashing of the Pacific waves exposes the volcanic plumbing system where you can see the black dikes running upward through the golden tuff rock. Within the caves, we could see green sea turtles swimming in the crystal clear water.
Next we came to what we were all waiting for- our first sighting of the Galapagos penguins! It is one of the smallest penguins in the world, endemic to the Galapagos Islands. It is also the only penguin found in the equatorial region. Although we saw many penguins, their numbers as a species are actually quite low. It was love at first sight as we slowly motored around the penguins sunning themselves on the rocks and slipping into the cool waters. It felt like they were truly happy to see us after a year of no visitors to the Galapagos!
Along the rock strewn shoreline we saw so many different animals co-existing peacefully in close proximity among each other- flightless cormorants, penguins, sea lions, marine iguanas, boobies- it was like a Galapagos version of Edward Hicks painting, “The Peaceable Kingdom”!
And then a remarkable sight unfolded before our very eyes. A tiny black head popped up beside the mother sea lion in the photo above. She had just given birth probably a few hours ago and this was her tiny pup. We watched her gently nudge her newborn pup down the rocks to the water for its first dip in the sea. You could see the bones in its flippers through its newborn wet translucent skin! The photo below is sequenced from left to right, like reading a book, so you can follow this heartwarmingl event as we watched from the pangas. Notice the marine iguana photo bomber!
After a return to the Bonita for a snack and cold drinks, it was back in the pangas to the same location for some superb snorkeling off the pangas. This area is a renowned snorkeling site- the cool nutrient rich water upwells from the deep supporting a rich variety of sea life, including numerous Pacific green turtles and Galapagos penguins and sea lions circling and zipping through the water as if to play with us. The visibility was not as good in this site but it was a thrill to see so many sea turtles and sea lions in the water.
Back to the Bonita for a delicious lunch of seafood ceviche with plantain chips, fresh fish with a red pepper sauce (and vegetarian and vegan options), salads, and a lemon curd with apple. We headed across the channel to Fernandina Island and watched from the top deck as the magnificent frigate birds circled overhead, following our boat.
After lunch we arrived at Espinoza Point on Fernandina Island. Fernandina is the westernmost island in the Galapagos and considered to be one of the younger islands. It is volcanically active and sits right over the hot spot that created the Galapagos Islands. The most recent eruption was in 2009. It has some of the richest waters in the Galapagos and is also a prime habitat for the Galapagos penguins, marine iguanas, and flightless cormorants. Before going a shore, we slid off the pangas into the cold water for some amazing snorkeling in the clear water. There was so much to see- feeding marine iguanas, playful sea lions, zippy penguins, lots of sea turtles, a diamond stingray, harlequin wrasses, sea cucumbers, blue sea stars, chocolate chip sea stars, tuna, pencil sea urchins, green sea urchins, hieroglyphic hawkfish, Peruvian grunts, Mexican hogfish, and so many colorful small fish. Several of us and Lulu had underwater cameras and took the photos of what we saw as we snorkeled.
In the afternoon we hiked on Fernandina. We walked through broken up slabs of a’a lava, ropey pahoehoe lava, and lava sand. The white bones of a whale skeleton against the black rock provided a striking contrast. There were tidal pools and grottos. Here we saw the largest colonies of marine iguanas- easily a thousand marine iguanas! The sandy area was marked with iguana tail trails leading up to the nesting areas in the sand.
As marine iguanas feed underwater, they take in seawater and have special glands to remove the salt so they don’t dehydrate. We could see them “snorting” out the salt as they sunned themselves on the rocks (click here to see the video Page took). This was also a good area to see the flightless cormorants, endemic to the Galapagos Islands. They have stunted wings and are confined to the shorelines. Natural selection led them to evolve with useless wings as they had no land predators and no need to fly since they are excellent swimmers and their food is right there in the water. The smaller their wings, the easiest it was to swim and thus survive so the better swimmers gradually passed on their genes for smaller and smaller wings.
Sea lions live in groups with a harem of females usually protected by a dominant bull which is much larger than the other males. The dominant male (bull) constantly patrols his territory keeping the bachelor males that are banished from the group away from the females. We watched as a bachelor tried to sneak up to a female and the large bull aggressively charged like a torpedo, barking and threatening the bachelor male. The look on this female’s face tells you what she was thinking about this macho behavior!
At one point we took another meditative moment to quietly sit, observe, listen and reflect on what an amazing place this is as we looked out at the sea and rocks crawling with Sally lightfoot crabs. We walked on a beach composed of tiny rock, shells, and sea urchin spines. At one point Lulu picked up some some pieces from the beach and put one in each of our hands and closed it so we couldn’t see what it was. Then she asked us all to open our hands and share what the first thing that came to our minds was when we looked at the object in our hand. This time it wasn’t the “blue footed kind” of booby! She showed us how this is part of the sea urchin’s body that held the spines. Looking down at the composition of the sand you could see it was full of sea urchin spines. We hiked back as the sun was beginning to set and our pangas arrived to take us back to the Bonita.
After dinner some of us went up to the top deck to observe the evening sky. Without any light pollution, the sky was spectacular- you could see the Milky Way and we spotted three meteor streaks. There was a reflection on the water toward our boat but no light on the opposite land to cause the reflection. We figured out it had to be the reflected light from our nearest planet, Venus, which shone brightly in the night sky! What a magnificent ending to a perfect day!
This morning we explored the central part of the west coast of Isabella with a wet landing at Urbina Bay. Urbina Bay was formed on the year of my birthday when the land suddenly uplifted and raised the sea bed by over 5 meters, exposing the heads of the coral reef to the air which is slowly weathering it away. There was a spectacular view of the large Alcedo volcano in the distance. We disembarked from the pangas, donned our hiking shoes and started our trek inland in search of the giant tortoises that frequent this area. Lulu pointed out the endemic manzanillo tree and warned us not to touch or brush up against it. It has a sap that can burn the skin. Apparently it does not bother the tortoises as they like to eat the fruit of the tree. So off we went, following the tortoise tracks in the trail and lo and behold, we came upon our first Galapagos giant tortoise, nestled under the brambles. It was quite a thrill to see a giant tortoise in the wild and never a guarantee when you are in the Galapagos as they have such a large range, tend to be solo, and their population is limited.
Walking further down the trail, LuLu spotted what looked like a grey rock across a field of dry vegetation. We walked through the open field, observing tortoise droppings on the ground, and giant Galapagos tortoise #2 was spotted going into the dense brush. How lucky we were to spot two! On the way back we rounded a bend and there was a third giant tortoise, crossing the trail in front of us and heading into the thick brush. Good luck comes in threes!
Walking along the trail there was a wide variety of plant life- manzanilla apples on the ground (favorite food of tortoises), the yellow cordia lutia flowering tree, we all got to smell the sap of the incense tree (with a chuckle when Lulu asked- who wants to smell my finger?!); birds such as cuckoos, Galapagos mockingbirds, smooth billed anis, the Galapagos hawk, and finches; bones and shell of a dead tortoise along the trail; and lots of Galapagos land iguanas, several in their burrows. We were warned not to wear bright colors on the trail today dues to the paper wasps that are attracted to colorful flowers.
Lulu pointed out the translucent berries on the yellow cordia tree called “glue berries”. The seeds are surrounded by a sticky substance which makes an excellent paper glue. It is also used as a hair styling gel. Lulu demonstrated her hair styling skills on Roxane!
We headed to a sandy beach to await the pangas, careful to stay away from the sea turtle nesting areas where you could see the depressions left in the sand. Dipping our feet into the cold water felt so good! Arriving back on the Bonita we were greeted with iced tea, “Galapagos twinkies”, and Steven’s lively music!
As the Bonita headed back up the coast to Tagus Cove, to the west of the Darwin Volcano, the frigate birds followed our boat with one perching atop the light beacon. Time to get ready for snorkeling and kayaking!
After a delicious buffet lunch of Ecuadorian specialties, we arrived at Tagus Cove, facing a high, steep rock cliff where you could see the graffiti and inscriptions carved by visitors, whalers, buccaneers, and even the U.S. Navy well before the Galapagos became a protected national park. Some of the inscriptions date back to 19th century pirates who frequented this hideaway cove. The name of the cove dates back to the 1800’s when a British ship, the Tagus, anchored here in search of giant tortoises to use as food on the ship. As we got ready for snorkeling, the crew readied the kayaks for some afternoon kayaking around the cove.
The snorkeling in the cove was spectacular! This was a deep water (cold!) snorkel off the pangas with a drop off shelf. Sightings included pufferfish, Mexican hog fish, rainbow wrasse, chocolate chip sea stars and several other types of sea stars, sea fans, orange cup coral, Galapagos red conch, green sea urchins, pencil sea urchins, sea cucumbers and lots and lots of Pacific green sea turtles that swam around us, unafraid! Lulu was so good at doing a deep dive down with the underwater camera to get some good shots for us that we couldn’t take as well with our cameras at the surface while snorkeling. It was a bit eerie to see the drop off at the shelf into the deep abyss.
After our snorkel the plan was to have some free time to kayak and a climb up the steep trail to see the Darwin Lake and view. But our plans changed when whales were spotted spouting in the distance. Since we had to head down the channel later that day, our captain made the decision to head earlier so we could search for the whales. So off we went positioned on the top and the main deck of the bow spotting whales by the exhalations rising from their blowholes creating a mist in the distance. The nutrient rich waters make the Bolivar channel between Fernandina and Isabella a prime feeding spot for many species of whales. After cruising down the channel at a good clip for about 45 minutes, we got pretty close to see them. They were most likely Bryde’s whales. A few of us standing on the port side of the boat were also fortunate enough to see a waved albatross flying overhead.
After a delicious dinner (the seafood appetizer was fabulous) we settled down in the lounge with cold beer and cocktails for Lulus presentation on the Galapagos ocean currents and their effect on weather and climate. As we headed off to our next destination, the sunset was glorious.
This morning we woke up in the calm waters of Elizabeth Bay ready to take off in the pangas after breakfast to see the large colonies of blue-footed boobies and other nesting birds.
The rock croppings rising from the bay were covered with blue-footed boobies. All around us the boobies were diving for fish, like torpedos dropping out of the sky! You could see the different shades of blue feet. The males take great pride in the blueness of their feet- males with bluer feet are more apt to impress a female to mate with. Why are they called boobies? Their name comes from the Spanish “bobo” meaning foolish or clown- they are indeed quite comical, especially when waddling around on their bright blue feet!
We “panga’d” over to the mangroves where we saw Galapagos penguins (more penguin love for Lynn!), pelicans roosting atop the mangroves and flying around catching fish, and striated herons; while frolicking sea lions and green sea turtles were swimming around us in the crystal clear cool water. It felt like we were in the Garden of Eden!
We panga’d over to a side of the mangrove inlet and suddenly before our eyes the most amazing and spectacular phenomenon occurred before our very eyes. Hundreds, probably over a thousand, boobies filled the horizon flying in from all directions and diving down into a feeding frenzy. It looked like the water was exploding. When they surfaced from their dive hundreds of them would fly up and make a large circle over our heads and dive down again. This kept happening repeatedly with more and more boobies joining the frenzy as the pelicans watched from their front row roosts on top of the mangroves! And of course the inevitable getting pooped on from above happened to a few of us! Protecting myself on the next fly around!
Watching these impressive dives was amazing. It prompted me to do a bit more research on this remarkable physical feat and behavior. This is what I found out: Blue footed boobies hunter fish individually, in pairs, or as a large flock as we witnessed. In large flocks there are lead birds that serve as “spotters”and signal to the flock when they have spotted a school of fish. They dive down together toward that specific spot, wings folded, necks stretched, plunging like arrows falling out of the sky at speeds up to 60 mph! They can plunge from heights as high as 320 feet and dive as deep as 65 feet. They tuck their wings and feet to become aerodynamic and have special air sacs in their skulls to protect their brains from the impact. When they catch a fish, they devour it underwater before surfacing which explains why we didn’t see any fish in their beaks. Watch the video in real time and slo-mo of boobies diving.
We returned to the Bonita exhilarated by the amazing phenomenon we witnessed. It was time to get ready for another snorkel off the pangas before lunch. The water was especially cold this time, even with our wet suits. Watch the video of Frank taking the plunge into the cold water . There were lots of sea turtles and fish and a colorful spotted shark on the bottom.
Back to the boat, before lunch we were treated to a demonstration by our excellent chef on how to make Ecuadorian ceviche, which differs from Peruvian ceviche. They use a type of sour orange instead of lime to acid cook the seafood. They add diced red and green peppers, fish stock, diced tomato, cilantro, and red onion. They serve the ceviche with a bowl of popcorn which you add to your ceviche to give it crunch!
After lunch we headed out in the pangas to Moreno Point. The first thing to catch our eye at our steep rocky panga landing was an eerie vast landscape of lava fields with sparse vegetation. A 360 view revealed we were surrounded by volcanoes- three on Isabella and one on Fernandina. The lava was both the pahoehoe ropey lava and a’a lava- with vast broken up sheets. The ropey texture of the lava is formed when the slow moving lava at the top crust partially solidifies and the faster moving lava underneath pulls it along faster causing the wrinkles in the slow, partially solidified top lava.
The main vegetation was cacti and a flowering succulent. The lava cactus is endemic and is an early colonizer of the lava flow. Occasionally we would come upon beautiful oasis-like grottos filled with brackish water and lush grasses where it served as a magnet in this desolate landscape for a variety of birds, including flamingos.
It surprised me how relatively easy it was to hike on the lava field. The ground was very uneven but the lava rock was solid and didn’t slip and slide under our feet. However, this was the first hike where we all definitely needed our walking sticks. Several endemic candelabra cacti rose from the rocks and we had a bit of fun with them for a photo op!
We laid down on the rocks and did another silent five minute meditation. The rocks were warm, the wind was whistling, the stillness was comforting. Hiking back to meet the pangas we could see the Bonita in the distance with flocks of blue footed boobies still circling overhead.
After returning to the Bonita we assembled on the top sun deck for a special demonstration by Steven, our server and bartender, on how to make Ecuador’s national drink, the canelazo. Prepared with cinnamon, cloves, and a boiled sugar syrup, it is topped off with aguardiente, “firewater”! This is an alcohol distilled from sugarcane that is made in Ecuador. The drink is served warm (although the alcohol itself is quite warming!).
And suddenly we were invaded by pirates! The crew of the Bonita came up and joined us in costume, including King Neptune! It was party time- dancing, laughing, conga line, and limbo! It was hilarious and so much fun. This crew had become like a family to us and after a year of no work, due to the closure of Galapagos when Covid was raging, they were so happy to set sail again with visitors. Even though they were all vaccinated as well as us, they still wore masks around us most of the time. Words can’t possibly describe how friendly, helpful, and fun they were the entire trip.
And then Lulu, with that twinkle in her eye- had some fun with us. Jesus, dressed as King Neptune, came forward. Lulu explained that King Neptune needs to be pleased with us before the Bonita is allowed to move to the next destination. To make him happy, he wants to know what we learned about the animals in the Galapagos. First up were Sean and Susan. Lulu explained that Sean will be a male penguin and Susan will be the mate he is courting. They had to act out the penguin courtship ritual for King Neptune. Sean did his penguin waddle over to Susan and they squawked and flapped their flippers. Lulu asked King Neptune if he was pleased and he nodded but he needed to see more before the boat could move.
Next up were Frank and Kathy. They were sea lions doing their courtship ritual. Frank was on all fours barking at Kathy! Next Abby, Lynn, Joyce, and Bonnie were blue footed boobies courting each other pointing their beaks and showing off their feet. And last, Page and Roxanne were marine iguanas competing for a mate- head bobbing and climbing over each other. King Neptune was very pleased with all of us and permitted the Bonita to proceed.
A good time was had by all, including the crew! Before heading back down for dinner, the captain explained how we crossed the equator twice. The line-crossing ritual is an ages old tradition to recognize sailors who crossed the equator for the first time. It was traditionally a hazing ritual where first timers had to prove to King Neptune that they were worthy of crossing the Equator. Perhaps our evening amusement was part of this ritual! As our names were announced, a crew member presented us with a certificate, signed by our captain, to recognize our crossing.
a spectacular day ended with another glorious Galapagos sunset.
During the night, which was quite a rocking and rolling cruise through rough seas that kept some of us awake, the Bonita cruised to the southeastern end of Isabella Island, anchoring in Puerto Villamil, a small quaint port village where most of the inhabitants of Isabella Island live. The morning was a bit grey and drizzly. We climbed into the pangas and headed off to Las Tintoreras, small islets or rock outcroppings inhabited by sea lions, marine iguanas, and a variety of birds. Disembarking from the pangas we encountered a sleeping sea lion on a bench at the dock. A trail took us through yet another different and fascinating landscape of dark, volcanic rock covered with white lichens.
Resting on the rocks, swimming, and climbing out of the water were large colonies of marine iguanas ranging from small juveniles to very large adults. The marine iguanas nest here and breed successfully due to the lack of introduced animals that destroy their nesting sites. If you look closely at a marine iguana’s lips- it looks as though they are smiling at you!
Along the trail we saw several sea lions, including a protective male with females that we cautiously had to walk around in case he charged us. A young mournful-looking pup, waiting for its mother, blocked our trail.
The animals here appear to make good use of the chin rests!
A variety of white, green, silver, and orange frutiose, crustos, and foliose lichens grew on the rocks and trees. Velvet mesquites; white, red, black, and button mangroves grew along the sandier parts of the islet. A juvenile yellow crested heron crossed our path and yellow warblers pecked for insects on the rocks. The lava lizards blended right into the rocks.
Toward the end of the trail there was a narrow channel, 2-3 meters wide between two lava walls filled with sea water. Here you can see the resting white tipped reef sharks on the bottom for which Las Tintoreras are named. On our way back to the landing dock to meet our pangas, the same sea lion was still snoozing on the bench!
We pulled into the town dock at Puerto Villamil. It seemed strange to see boats in the harbor after being pretty much the lone boat at sea all week. The center of town is made up of small businesses, small boutique hotels, restaurants, beachside bars, and roads with cars on them! We passed the St. Anthony Church, with a statue of St Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of animals) in front. The church had stained glass windows of Galapagos animals. Being in a small town was quite a change from the remote areas we visited the past week. A small open air bus met us and transported us to the Isabella Breeding Center for Galapagos giant tortoises.
At the breeding center we learned how they are breeding and raising young Galapagos giant tortoises to release back into the wild (at least 5 years of age). Threatened by habitat destruction from feral goats, rats, ants and other introduced species; poaching by humans to sell to zoos and collectors; scarcity of food; fires; and volcanic eruptions- serious restoration efforts are working to increase the population. We saw the incubation areas and rearing pens for young tortoises as well as the older breeding tortoises. While we were there we observed two tortoises mating (see video) which was quite a feat given how cumbersome their shelled bodies are- and quite a lot of grunting too!
These gentle giants, who can live to well over a century, also had an impact on Darwin’s evolutionary theory, much like the finches, as he noticed the variations between islands and how the tortoises fit within their ecological niche. From large, old breeding tortoises to tiny hatchlings, it was heartwarming to see how they are using vital tools, breeding, incubation, and rearing methods to restore the populations of tortoises unique to each island.
After our visit to the tortoise breeding center, we hiked through Los Humedales (translated as wetlands)- another different ecosystem. We walked through the shady mesquites to the wetlands of Isabella to the sandy beaches and rocky shores. White, red, black, and button mangroves here and lots of ground finches, shore and wading birds – stilts, moor hens, flamingos.
At the end of the trail we came to the road which led us to a beautiful beach.
We walked on the rocks and sand, before getting back into our open air bus, but not before stopping to buy some delicious homemade coconut cookies from a man and his son with their push cart.
After lunch, we had an opportunity to go into the town on our own to do a little shopping and explore the town. We went inside St Anthony’s Church where it was the first time I have ever seen Christ set against the backdrop of the ocean with Galapagos penguins and marine iguanas! The stained glass windows of the Galapagos animals were so beautiful looking through from the inside. In the center of town there was a small soccer stadium. After exploring the town, we headed back to the beach for a swim. The water was surprisingly not too cold without my wet suit. A little boy, about 10 years old, and I were the only ones in the water and without speaking a word of English, he showed me how to body surf. He was like a sea lion diving under the waves and catching the big ones. I had so much fun with him!
After drying off, Joyce and I headed over to a tiny beach bar to meet up with LuLu and others. Here we were introduced to the signature drink of Puerto Villamil- the Coco Loco! With the help of a machete which she wielded with great agility and aim, the owner whacked open a chilled coconut for each of us on a tree stump, brought it over and had us sip out part of the coconut water (so refreshing!) so she could then pour in the rum (or I think it was that Ecuadorian firewater made with sugarcane!). Wow- those coconuts were big and you definitely would go loco if you drank more than one of these!
Others soon joined us at the beach bar and Lulu showed how to “bottoms up” a Coco Loco! Lulu seems to know everyone on the islands- including the proprietor of this beach bar. It was also a chance to get another coconut popsicle!
Before heading back to the village dock to meet our pangas, we walked over to the soccer stadium which was filled with families watching their children play soccer. Back on the Bonita we looked down into the water and saw black tip reef sharks swimming by the boat.
Tonight was our last evening aboard the Bonita. Stephen served us all a special cocktail and the entire crew and captain came out to the lounge and gave us a special toast. What a fantastic crew we had for this trip! After dinner, the chef presented Susan and Sean with a specially made cake for their anniversary- topped with a sea turtle carved from a kiwi! After dinner it was time to start packing 😦 Sadly, this was our last night.
We woke up to our final breakfast on beautiful Santa Cruz Island, home of our guide, Lulu. Puerto Ayora is the largest town in the Galapagos and Santa Cruz Island is the most populated island with a variety of vegetative zones, including lush tropical vegetation which we didn’t see on the other islands which were much drier. After setting our luggage out to be taken to the airport, we said our goodbyes to the crew and boarded our bus to the Charles Darwin Research Station, passing through this quaint town with art everywhere featuring Galapagos species, including this waved albatross near the landing dock.
We walked about a quarter mile up the entrance road to the boardwalk paths leading to the interpretive exhibits.
The station, within the National Park, is part of the Charles Darwin Foundation, an international non-profit organization dedicated to scientific research with an international team of research scientists studying the biology of the Galapagos. “Our mission is to provide science that will help to conserve the environment and biodiversity of the archipelago and that enables decision-makers to work towards a truly sustainable Galapagos. We are doing this within the context of dynamic changes in the commercial, political, and social landscapes of the Galapagos Islands. It is perhaps fitting that in this bastion of evolution, the Charles Darwin Foundation continually evolves as a matter of adaptation.”(Dr. Dennis Geist, President of the CDF)
We noticed the opuntia cactus were exceptionally large here with trunks that actually looked like tree trunks, compared to the smaller ones we saw on other islands. Insect traps to control invasive were hanging from several of the opuntia trees. We walked past a large map of the Galapagos and Lulu stopped and guided us in retracing our amazing journey (link to the video here). The boardwalk covered, open air interpretive exhibits on the formation of the Galapagos Islands; Galapagos species; natural selection and evolution, Charles Darwin, invasive species control, and conservation and species restoration projects were excellent and very informative- anyone with a love for and appreciation of biology could spend an entire day here, just going through the exhibits. It was an excellent biology refresher for many of us. Lulu guided us through a quick visit and provided additional commentary, including how she used to volunteer at the Darwin Center when she was a young student. Many school groups do service learning here.
,The outdoor and indoor exhibits highlighting the seminal work on natural selection and evolution of Charles Darwin, or “Chuckie D” as Lulu would affectionately refer to him, was especially interesting and reminded me of the advertisement for the 1835 coffee shop on the island I saw when we went through the airport! There was also an amazing mosaic portrait of Darwin done entirely with photos taken of the iconic Galapagos species.
The Fausto Llerena Tortoise Breeding Center at the Darwin Station was started in 1965 to save the Galapagos Giant tortoise population. The Center was named after the Galapagos’s oldest serving park ranger and his over 40 years of service to Galapagos conservation efforts.
Up until 2012, the last surviving “saddleback”tortoise of the Pinta Island subspecies lived here. His name was Lonesome George (I saw him in 1997 when I went to the Galapagos). Sadly Lonesome George did not breed successfully and his subspecies died out when he passed away in 2012. Fausto Llerena was his caretaker and had a special bond with Lonesome George. When Lonesome George died, he was heartbroken and retired soon after that. One of the exhibits highlights the special bond and conservation work of Fausto Llerena. Lonesome George, the iconic tortoise of the Galapagos, is now preserved and kept in a special climate and light controlled, glass enclosed exhibit which we viewed. His DNA has also been preserved.
Juvenile tortoises are raised here until they are 4-5 years old and can be released to survive in the wild. An excellent exhibit detailed the step by step process of raising tortoises in captivity for release into the wild.
We saw a range of tortoises of different subspecies ranging from tiny hatchlings to large adult breeding tortoises. Baby tortoises hatch after four to eight months in the egg. They are extremely small and vulnerable when they first hatch. Subspecies are separated and identified by the island they are from and will be returned to.
There were several other excellent indoor exhibits and the store where we bought T-shirts and other Darwin Center high quality gifts where a portion of each purchase goes to support the Darwin Center.
As we left the Darwin Center to meet our bus down the road, we passed an art exhibit made from plastic trash collected on the beaches- a stark reminder that even the pristine Galapagos cannot escape the horrible problem of plastic trash in the ocean. A reminder to all of us to do all you can to cut back on plastic use, especially water bottles and single use disposable plastics.
Keeping with our tight schedule to return to the airport for our flight to the mainland, we boarded our bus for a drive to the ferry terminal which would take us across to the island of Baltra where the airport is located. The hour drive cut across the island of Santa Cruz where we passed beautiful farms, lush vegetation, and even saw a couple giant tortoises along the road. Arriving at the ferry station, we entered the terminal with other visitors catching the ferry to get to the airport. As our luggage was loaded atop the ferry, we were glad to have Lulu with us to navigate this last leg of our journey as it was a bit chaotic!
We made it to the airport with about 45 minutes to spare before our flight. After sadly saying goodbye to our beloved and amazing guide, Lulu, we passed through inspection and did some last minute Galapagos gift shopping. After our quick flight to the mainland, we were greeted by our other wonderful guide, Fernando, who took us back to the Unipark Hotel for our PCR Covid tests, required to fly back to the U.S. We assembled in one of the salons where Fernando arranged for the lab to set up a testing station for us. We each received a deep nasal cavity swab (ugh- practically up to the eyeballs!) and were assured we would get our results back in time for the first departures that evening. With time to spare before dinner, we had time on our own to further explore Guayaquil, do some last minute gift shopping, walk across the street to the Iguana Park once more to see the iguanas, or buy coffee at the Juan Valdez Coffee Shop (Joyce and I met a delightful barista!). The coolest gift was the chess set Abby bought with chess pieces carved as Galapagos animals.
We had a lovely group dinner (fresh fish and vegetarian options) at the hotel and Roxane, definitely the most stylish traveler in our group, wore a hand- beaded necklace she went back to buy from an artisan on the Malecon. Before dessert was served, Fernando presented us with printed copies of our Covid test results. While we explored Guayaquil, he went and got our results and printed them out for us so we wouldn’t have to worry about getting them on our phones. Truly he went above and beyond and we are so thankful for his help in taking care of us!
We all said our goodbyes with the Giglio’s first to depart, followed by a group that had the 1:00 AM departure to Miami. The rest of us departed the next morning through Guayaquil’s modern and efficient airport – all of us with memories of our bucket list trip of a lifetime!
Adaptation, natural selection, diversity of species, evolution were always on our minds. Take the iguanas for example. We saw marine iguanas, Galapagos land iguanas, and the mainland iguanas. Unfortunately we did not see the rare Galapagos pink iguana. It is thought that the Galapagos iguanas had a common ancestor, much like the ones in the Iguana Park in Guayaquil, that floated out to the islands from the South American continent on rafts of vegetation. The divergence between land and marine iguanas has been estimated at 10.5 million years ago. Geneticists estimate that the pink iguana diverged from the other land iguanas approximately 5.7 million years ago. Such a fascinating diversity of a species, yet one can see the similarities! (the pink iguana photo was taken from the Galapagos Conservancy website). We got to observe some of the most remarkable biological phenomena on this trip!
There were so many different surfaces we walked on– white sandy beaches, shelled beaches, a’a and pahoehoe lava, slabs of volcanic rock, black sand, reddish soil. It was fun to keep track of the different surfaces my feet walked on!
Our guides were amazing. Fernando Icaza was our guide in Guayaquil, for both legs of our journey. His soft-spoken gentle, kind, patient demeanor set a relaxing tone for us and the walking tour of Guayaquil, with his interesting commentary, exceeded our expectations. We are so grateful to him for going above and beyond to get our Covid PCR tests arranged and back to us in time (with paper copies) for our flights back to the U.S.
Lourdes Pesante-Aguirre (Lulu) was our guide in Galapagos. From the minute we met her at the airport, we knew we were in good hands! She has a personality larger than life- bubbly, funny, smart, knowledgeable, passionate, spontaneous, joyful- there are way too many adjectives to describe her! She seemed to know everyone in the Galapagos and they all seem to know her! She worked so hard with us and with the crew, made personal connections with each and every person in our group, and was very professional; yet during our down times in the evening, she would have fun with us! She looked out for us, teased us, encouraged reflection, had the best laugh, took underwater photos for us, kept us informed, and shared her personal stories of growing up in the Galapagos. She was a natural teacher and extraordinary guide!
Cruising around the islands on our own yacht with the amazing crew of the Bonita was a fantastic experience. Our cabins were comfortable, attractive, modern- but we really didn’t spend much time in them other than to sleep. The sun deck up top was a nice place to congregate and also to see the stars in the night sky. The lounge was comfortable and the flat screen TV always had our itinerary for the day posted. Lulu and Susan also used the flat screen TV to do slide shows of the photos taken during the day. The bar was well stocked and Steven could make almost any cocktail, including a mean margarita and my South American favorite- the pisco sour! Click here to see the details of the Bonita yacht.
The food was delicious with plenty of variety. We had a fresh fish option every day along with other choices, including vegetarian and vegan. The ceviche appetizers and soups before the meal were excellent. Lunch was always a buffet with several selections and nice fresh salads and fruit and dinner was a plated meal with entree options, usually a fish, chicken, beef, pasta, or vegan/vegetarian. Breakfast had a different main choice every morning. One night we had a seafood fest with shrimp, calamari, octopus, and sea bass. The chef was very creative. In addition to our three meals, we were always met with a cold drink and a nice snack when we returned from the pangas. Needless to say, I never needed to touch the granola bars I brought with me in case I needed a snack!
Pangas! By the time we departed, we were quite nimble in getting in and out of the pangas. Pangas are the zodiacs used for wet and dry landings on the islands, slow cruising up to cliffs and into sea caves, or to drop us off the sides into snorkeling areas. The crew always assisted us in and out of the pangas and sometimes even the captain came down to assist us. Following Galapagos Covid safety requirements, the panga drivers were always face-masked when they were with us in the pangas even though the crew was fully vaccinated. For some of the amazing surprise sightings like the huge flock of diving boobies, the panga drivers were just as thrilled at the sights as we were! We always had 2 pangas each with a crew member as well as Lulu.
The diversity of species on land and underwater exceeded our expectations. After a year and a half of Covid and few visitors to the Galapagos Islands, I think the animals were happy to see us. The sea lions seemed to be our welcoming committee wherever we went! Susan and Joyce kept the species list for us. At the end of the trip, after Joyce transcribed it onto her iPad, the list was five pages!
Galapagos is a photographer’s dream destination! Because you can get so close to the animals, you really don’t need a long lens most of the time. Many of the excellent photos taken by our group were with phones. These are two of my favorite photos- A smiling marine iguana and “blue footed booby love”.
Final Reflections from Page and Joyce:
We have both had the good fortune of leading several outdoor STEM expeditions, and each has brought us a great appreciation for the diversity of life and geological wonders on our planet. But if we were to list these expeditions in order of their unique opportunities, we would place our Galapagos trip at the top of the list. Such an array of unique flora and fauna, much of which can’t be seen anywhere else on Earth! Thank you to Holbrook Travel for arranging our trip.
While the Galapagos Islands served as the backdrop for our STEM expedition, it was our group that made this trip such a joy. All came to genuinely care for one another and help each other during challenging moments, whether it was gaining a footing on the rocks, getting in and out of pangas and wet suits, or taking a difficult shot with a long lens to share with others. Some, including myself (Joyce), were novice snorkelers, and as we entered the waters, we knew our fellow travelers were looking out for us. With my bad knee (Page), I really appreciated everyone’s help in adjusting my position in the panga. Group leaders may play a role in guiding a group through new experiences, but never underestimate the importance of supportive friends! Thank you to everyone for making this trip such an enjoyable and safe experience for all!
The Bonita crew was instrumental in setting the tone for our time in the Galapagos. As I think back to moments when we were returning after a panga adventure, the crew was at the stern of the ship, welcoming us back, playing festive music, dancing, and offering us refreshments. I can only imagine how hard they were working behind the scenes to make this seem so effortless.
Traveling during a pandemic was a bit stressful at first but upon arriving in Ecuador, it was clear that Ecuadorians take Covid safety precautions very seriously. The same was true in Galapagos and on the Bonita. Thankfully we all stayed healthy and safe and being outdoors for most of the time added another layer of safety. Personally, we felt safer in the Galapagos than we would in some of the states in the U.S.!
LuLu’s passion for her “paradise” is so contagious! We knew there was going to be a sighting of a special animal, just by watching her face. LuLu would light up, laugh, and say, “oh, wow!” – and then we’d look where she was pointing. How many people can say they’ve seen a blue-footed booby feeding frenzy, had dolphins play alongside their pangas, or witnessed a mother sea lion give her baby their first bath? We can, thanks to LuLu.
Our parting words to everyone come from a display at the Darwin Center: “Nature is not a place to visit, it is home” (Gary Snyder). Thank you Lulu, Bonita Crew, and all the animals of the Galapagos for welcoming us into your “home”.
And stay tuned for Galapagos Part 2 when we do another STEM Expedition in 2023!