Isla Baltra, is a small island off the northeast coast of Isla Santa Cruz. It houses a modern airport (Seymour), built with sustainability in mind, without the normal comforts of air-conditioning, a moving passenger baggage belt. Electricity is generated by wind turbines which are clearly visible in front of the airport.
Off the coast of Isla Baltra the islands of Isla Daphne Mayor and Isla Daphne Minor. Isla Daphne Major has a tuff-crater and its rim rises 120m above sea level.
Travelling around Isla Baltra on the boat, we were followed by a group of frigate birds and a blue-footed booby who seemed to enjoy the drafts created by the boat. They weaved in and out of the drafts in an elegant dance as they soared high above our boat.
The snorkelling at Punta Carrion (Itabaca channel) between Baltra and Santa Cruz is quite amazing. The volcanic rocks mean there are many crevices for the fish to play hide and seek. We managed to see a white-tipped reef shark, lots of surgeon-fish, wrasses, parrot-fish, pelican and sally lightfoot crabs.
The container ship that the sea lion is resting on is the lifeblood of the Galapagos. The main supply line of goods between the mainland, bringing out most of the food and other goods used by the permanent population (circa 35,000) and the visitors (circa 250,000 annually).
While the physical journey started on the 19 December 2018, the destination had been a dream for 5 years since I visited Darwin’s House (Down House) in Kent, England. The idea that a group of islands and the animals living on these islands could change the course of science put it firmly on my bucket list of travel destinations. The photos and stories of my brother and sister-in-law and my travelling buddy shared pushed it up the list into number one.
I travelled to Sydney international airport just before Christmas along with what felt like half of Sydney was a good way to put one in the holiday mood. After a civilised lunch with a celebratory glass of bubbly for my friend’s birthday, we boarded the flight for what would be the longest day ever…. The 12.5-hour flight (excluding what now seems to be the obligatory delay at Sydney airport) left at 12:50 Sydney time and got us to Santiago airport at 11:10 am on the same day… the wonders of a crossing the international deadline.
The Chilean surprise that greets all Australian is a reciprocal entry fee of 117 USD for the privilege of entering the country. While steep for our overnight stay, it lasts for 90 days. With a 5.30 am flight the next day, we managed to delay the jet lag by having lunch/dinner at 6 pm, ready for a 2.30 am wake up call.
We found Santiago airport at 3.30 a.m., a sea of humanity queuing up to go somewhere with lots of luggage, wrapped large Christmas presents, new TVs. Confusion about lines, automated vs. /manual check-ins and poor signage meant that we were unexpectedly ushered to a separate queue. Clearing customs was the lengthy process with the customs officials while bag screening was a smooth and seamless process.
After a 4 hour flight and a 2 hour time change, we landed in Lima for a 4.5-hour stopover. Without access to an airline lounge, we lasted till about 10 am until we sat down for an early lunch. Then after another 2 hour and 20-minute flight we finally landed in Quito, Ecuador. We spent a day and a half recovering and exploring Quito (see the separate Quito CIty post)
The final Ecuadorian flight, started with a 3.30 am a pick-up for a 5.30 am flight, after a minor quarantine incident where my passionfruit was confiscated while the rest of the group’s apples were passed through without a problem. We were on the final leg of the journey to the Galapagos – destination Isla Baltra.
Upon arrival at Baltra airport while our luggage was subject to a canine inspection we were required to pay 100 USD for to the National Park and 20 USD for a transfer fee. A much-needed coffee, a typical Ecuadorian snack of Huminta and the intermittent phone/wi-fi signal was how we spent the next 2.5 hours. The highlight of the wait was the warning signs not to feed the Darwin finches and spying on the food choices of the airport staff.
Finally, our guide Alexis met us for the bus transfer to the boat Jetty, We spotted sally lightfoot crabs, a sea lion and a pelican from the jetty despite the boat shelter being in the middle of construction.
Finally, our panga (zodiac) came to collect us for the short ride to the boat. Once onboard, we were lucky enough to have our fourth and final “breakfast” of the day….
It was then quickly followed by lunch 1.5 hours later….. And finally, the holiday can begin!
Any search of bucket list destinations will include The Galápagos
Islands, famed for the amazing and diverse wildlife and the variety of
The first recorded visit to the islands was in 1535 by Fray Tomás de Berlanga. In the 1830s Charles Darwin visited the islands and observed adaptations made by different species. Using his observations and collections, Darwin developed his theory of evolution by means of natural selection which was published as On the Origin of Species in 1859.
Today, the Galápagos Islands are part of the Republic of
Ecuador and can be found 906 km (563 miles) west of continental Ecuador. The islands
and their surrounding waters form the Galápagos National Park and Marine
Reserve. The permanent population of the islands is around 25,000 and they
receive around 250,000 visitors annually.
The group consists of 18 main islands, 3 smaller islands,
and 107 rocks and islets; covering 7,880 square kilometres (3,040 square miles).
The archipelago is located on the Nazca Plate (tectonic plate), which is moving
east/southeast, diving under the South American Plate. Volcanic activity is still
evident today, with Sierra Negra (on Isla
Isabela) erupting in June 2018.
The islands straddle the equator, the Humboldt Current brings cold water, causing frequent drizzles during most of the year. During garúa (June to November), the temperature by the sea is 22 °C, a steady and cold wind blows from south and southeast, frequent drizzles (garúas) last most of the day, and dense fog conceals the islands. During the warm season (December to May), the average sea and air temperature rise to 25 °C, there is no wind at all, there are sporadic, though strong, rains and the sun shines.
Visiting the Galapagos Islands
Most visitors to the Galápagos arrive by plane from Quito or
Guayaquil into Seymour Airport (Isla Baltra), which was renovated to be environmentally
friendly with on-site electricity generation, natural air-conditioning or San
Cristóbal Airport (Isla San Cristobal). Each visitor pays a $100 USD park entry
fee and a $20 USD transfer fee upon entry (2018 prices).
Around half of the visitors cruise the islands using ships designed for between 16 and 110 passengers which follow strictly defined routes defined by the National Parks. While the other half use land-based hotels in the inhabited islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela and use day boats to visit the uninhabited islands.
Access to the park is tightly controlled to the 54 land sites and 62 scuba-diving or snorkelling sites around the whole archipelago. Small groups (usually around 16) are allowed to visit in 2- to 4-hour shifts only, to limit the impact on the area. All groups are accompanied by licensed guides.
As a result of the volcanic activity, islands in the archipelago
vary in age from 0.05 million years (Isla Fernandina to 3.2 million years (San
This is evident today in the variety of
landscapes from the white sand beaches of Bahia Gardner (Isla Española)
to the lava fields of Isla Santiago and the green wetlands of Isla Santa Cruz.
For detailed accounts of my visit to some of the key islands refer to https://reflections-travel-etc.com/category/travel-diary/galapagos-diary/
Mammals of the Galapagos Islands
There are six mammal species (found on land) that are considered native to the islands as well as aquatic mammals that swim in and out of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Including:
Galapagos Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus, subspecies: wollebacki). They are incredibly playful and inquisitive behaviour especially from the young pups made them easily our favourite animals. We were also lucky enough to be treated to incredibly elegant underwater gymnastics. They are very territorial – especially the males – and I saw one nip the fins of one of our snorkelling party.
We spotted a group of Bottle-nosed Dolphins which followed the boat on a number of our sails between islands. Other marine mammals including the Common White-bellied Dolphin, Humpback whale, Sperm Whale, Killer Whale, False Killer Whales, Pilot Whale were not spotted on my trip.
Other mammals include Galapagos Fur Seals (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) which are found on more rugged, rockier, and shadier shores than sea lions. There are also Rice Rats and Bats.
Land Birdsof the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos land birds vary in height with Darwin finches which are between 10 – 20 cm and were often hard to spot amongst tree branches. While the larger birds like the Galapagos hawk (45 – 58 cm) and the waved albatross (80 – 90 cm in height) tended to command their immediate environment.
The Galapagos flamingo numbers around 420 and we spotted them in saltwater lagoons and saw them feeding (often standing on one leg). filter feed primarily on brine shrimp. Young flamingos hatch with grey plumage which turns to pink due to the aqueous bacteria and beta carotene obtained from their diet.
Other land birds not spotted include mockingbirds, Galapagos Dove, Galapagos Rail and Galapagos Martin, Galapagos Short-eared Owl, Vermilion Flycatcher, Dark-billed Cuckoo, Common Gallinule, Paint-billed Crake.
Sea Birdsof the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands famous for it’s for tropical seabirds, including Blue-footed, Red-footed, and Nazca Boobies. The three booby populations are the most common and most frequently seen of the seabirds. Each species feeds by spectacular plunge-diving into the sea and then catching fish on their way back to the water surface. All three species tend to live in groups, widely distributed small colonies of Blue-footed Boobies to the larger, less frequent colonies of the Nazca Boobies, to the few huge colonies of Red-footed Boobies.
The Galapagos Penguins are one of the smaller penguins of the world and the only penguins that live at or just above the equator and the population number around 2,000. Waved Albatross breed only on Isla Española Island in the Galapagos and number around 35,000. Swallow-tailed Gulls nest on steep slopes or broken cliffs, on ledges, and also just above the wave line on gravelly beaches and under vegetation and number around 10,000 – 15,000 pairs.
The Magnificent Frigatebird and the Great Frigatebird are both found in the Galapagos. They are amazing flyers and feed by snatching up flying and other fish, squid, and scraps from the surface of the ocean – and, most notably, by stealing from other seabirds in flight.
We spotted the Yellow-crowned Night Heron considered the crab-eating specialist taking shelter under the many volcanic rocks which dot the islands. Other species include Great Blue Herons, Lava Herons, Black-crowned Herons and Striated Herons, Oystercatchers, White-cheeked pintails, Gallinules, and Common Egrets.
Other sea birds not spotted include Flightless Cormorants, Red-billed Tropicbirds, Lava Gulls and the Galapagos Petrels.
Marine Lifeof the Galapagos Islands
As the Galapagos islands are the meeting point of the nutrient-rich cool waters from the south, warm currents from the north, and a deep cold current from the west this creates diverse flora and fauna for its marine life.
There have been more than 400 fish species recorded including yellow-tailed surgeonfish, blue parrotfish as well as blue-eyed damselfish and white-banded angelfish etc. One of the most common sights is the sally-lightfoot crab, white-tipped and black-tipped reef sharks and manta rays. While whales and hammerhead sharks are often found further offshore (luckily away from the snorkelling sites we visited)
Reptilesof the Galapagos Islands
The giant tortoises of Galapagos are some of the most famous fauna of the Islands. The Galapagos Islands were named for their giant tortoises; the old Spanish word galapago meant saddle, a term early explorers used for the tortoises due to the shape of their shells. The shape of their shell varies depending on the climatic conditions and food sources of the islands they live on with domed tortoises larger due to easy access to food in the humid highlands.
The marine iguanas are the only sea-going lizard in the world, they live on land but feed on seaweed. Their colour depends on the island they inhabit and range from red and black to black and green and red and grey. The land iguanas are large, up to a metre long and can be found in the drier areas of the islands, the most common species is yellowish in colour (Conolophus subcristatus).
The Galapagos lava lizards have adapted to their surrounding with their colouring varying by both the island they live on and their gender. The ones living on islands with dark lava are darker than those living on light sandy islands.
Fish Market in Isla Santa Cruz
The fish markets in Isla Santa Cruz is unique. Fish and other seafood are caught on hand lines by local fisherman in areas that are strictly controlled by the National Park authorities. Once the catch is landed, there is a race for the best parts of the catch between the different types of locals – humans, pelicans and sea lions!