For many years, I have had a dream about
seeing the fantastic Galapagos Islands. When I visit Ecuador the
first time, I was told they have been spoiled by tourism, and was
not worth it. Second time, they should be restored in some degree,
but I didn't have the time, working op north on an
Andean Bear project.
Then I got fed up with the Danish ice winter, and in line with my "save the world project" I started looking for a way out. I found a conservation nursery that needed a hand on San Cristobal. Part of my latest education was maintain the only collection of Galapagos plants outside Galapagos, and I feel I can contribute to this project, which I also feel is very important.
I have set off three months, the maximum I can get a Ecuadorian visa for. Two months for the project, one for exploring the islands to see more plants and especially reptiles and some of the birds.
ISLAND FACTS. (Jump to the diary)
The Galápagos Islands; Archipiélago de Colón, are - in short - an archipelago of volcanic islands distributed around the equator in the Pacific Ocean, 972 km west of continental Ecuador. It consists of 7,880 km2. Well over half of that area is made by Isabella. The group consists of fifteen main islands, three smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. Only four; San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana are populated by humans and can be visited independently. Well, Baltra are also, containing an international airport. The first settler came in 1807. Before that, only pirates have stayed on the islands. Now, these islands have a population of around 30,000, growing with up to 10% annually! On top of that, there are many "temporally" workers and scientists.
It is a UNESCO World Heritage site: Wildlife is its most notable feature. The Galápagos islands and its surrounding waters are a national park (97%), and a biological marine reserve (100%): Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve. This part can only be visited on cruises with guides using defined paths - which cost at least $100-300 a day, or by scientists, who can experience huge difficulties to obtain them. The islands are geologically young and famed for their vast number of endemic species.
The reptiles have their own page, but shortly: There are 27 species of which 17 species are endemic. There are five families of reptilians: Iguana; Iguanidae, lava lizards; Tropiduridae, geckos; Gekkonidae, snakes; Colubrideae and the tortoise; Testudinidae. Some of the most known reptiles are Galapagos Land Iguanas, Conolophus pallidus. Marine Iguana, Amblyrhynchus cristatus and the Galapagos Giant Tortoise; Geochelone elephantopus. In the surrounding sea, Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas agassisi are found along with Yellow-bellied Sea Snake; Pelamis platurus.
The birds are well represented, and have their own page. Many of the birds are endemic while others are just most abundant here: Flightless Cormorant; Phalacrocorax harrisi , The Lava Gull; Leucophaeus fuliginosus. The Swallowtail Gull; Creagrus furcatus. Galápagos Penguin; Spheniscus mendiculus. Native, but not endemic are: Great Frigatebird; Fregata minor. Magnificent Frigatebird; Fregata magnificens. Blue-footed Booby; Sula nebouxii. Waved Albatross; Phoebastria irrorata.
On land, more endemic species can be found: Galápagos Hawk; Buteo galapagoensis. Four endemic species of Galápagos Mockingbirds; Nesomimus sp. the first species Darwin noticed to vary from island to island. Thirteen endemic species of Tanagers, popularly called Darwin's Finches.
The mammals are more scares: Only two species of bats: The endemic Red Bat; Lasiurus blossevillii (Lasiurus brachyotis) and the Hoary Bat; Lasiurus cinereus. A few species of native rats was found on land to: The Darwin's Rice Rat or Darwin's Galapagos Mouse; Nesoryzomys darwini, the Santa Fe Rice Rat; Aegialomys galapagoensis bauri, Fernandina Rice Rat; Nesoryzomys narboroughii, Fernandina Galapagos Mouse; Nesoryzomys fernandinae, Galapagos Rice Rat; Oryzomys bauri and Giant Galapagos Rice Rat; Megaoryzomys curiori.
The sea surrounding the islands are rich and hosts some endemic species and subspecies as well. One is the Galapagos Sea Lions, Zalophus californianus wollebacki. Another is the small Galapagos Fur Seals; Arctocephalus galapagoensis. Of non-endemic species, the Humpback Whale; Megaptera novaeangliae, the giant Blue Whale; Balaenoptera musculus, Sperm Whales (Cachalot); Physeter macrocephalus, Orca; Orcinus orca, the Short-finned Pilot Whale; Globicephala macrorhynchus, Minke Whale; Balaenoptera bonaerensis, Sei Whale; Balaenoptera borealis and the Fin Whale; Balaenoptera physalus. Among the smaller are the Bottlenose Dolphin; Tursiops truncatus and the White Bellied (Common) Dolphin; Delphinus delphis.
Insects, Bugs and other Invertebrates have also found the islands. There are over 1600 species of insects on the Galapagos Islands. (411 beetles, 100 flies, one praying mantis; Galapagia solitaria). Some of the common insects in Galapagos include: Carpenter Bee; Xylocopa darwinii, Sulphur Butterfly; Phoebis sennae marcellina, Green Hawkmoth; Eumorpha labruscae and the Squeak Bug; Eburia lanigera.
There are two scorpions: The endemic Hadruroides maculatus galapagoensis and the Common Yellow; Hadruroides lunatus. More than 50 spiders,16 snails, 80 bugs, many crabs, sea animals and other strange creatures. The endemic spiders are the Galapagos Black Widow; Latrodectus apicalis and the Zig-Zag Spider; Neoscona cooksoni. Here are also the Galapagos Centipede; Scolopendra galapagensis, which can grow to 30 centimetres are rather dangerous t humans.
I hope to be able to see some of the endemic butterflies: Galapagos Blue Butterfly; Leptodes parrhasioides. Galapagos Silver Fritillary; Agraulis vanillae galapagensis. Galapagos Sulphur Butterfly; Phoebis sennae marcellina. Large Tailed Skipper; Urbanus galapagensis and the Queen Butterfly; Danaus gilippus. Here are two non-endemic species: Monarch Butterfly; Danaus plexippus and Painted Lady; Vanessa cardui.
There are some endemic subspecies of moths: Fringed Noctuid; Ascalapha odorata. Galapagos Hawkmoth; Manduca rustica. Gaudy Sphinx; Eumorpha labruscae and Indefatigable Hawkmoth; Xylophanes norfolki.
Of the 20 ants, Galapagos Carpenter Ant; Camponotus macilentus are endemic. The most interesting species of the 22 grasshoppers must be the endemic Galapagos Field Cricket; Gryllus abditus and especially the Galapagos Flightless Grasshopper; Halemus robustus. On the other hand, I would like to see the Large Painted Locust; Schistocerca melanocera and the Small Painted Locust; Schistocerca literosa.
The Plants have their own page, but in short: There are 500 species of which 180-200 are endemic. They grow in six different zones, from the salty coast through the arias foothills and more humid heights to the temperate grass and fern top. I especially hope to see the very rare and endangered Talinum galapagosum which is only found on San Cristobal. Almost 900 invasive species are also found on the islands, half of them ornamentive.
The surrounding sea have many interesting animals and plants too. The area is enriched by several currents, especially the cold and rich Humboldt Current from the south in July to December, strongest in September. The Panama Current , which bring warm water in November. The warm California Current from the north. and South Equatorial Counter Current (Cromwell) from west
A fifth is the warm El Niño Current (California Current remains), which occurs every second to seventh years, and the strong westward-blowing trade winds subside. These winds, which normally pull the warm waters to the west and allow the nutrient rich Humboldt Current to reach the Galapagos, fail to leave the islands. Due to the lack of nutrients, this weather phenomena is a catastrophe to the animals in the sea, the birds feeding on them and the Marine Iguana, Amblyrhynchus cristatus.
Although I will be visiting the islands during the warm season, I have to confess the water is too cold for my liking, and diving will not be on the agenda on this tour. It is not because half of the people I know who have snorkelled there have been bitten by sharks, it is just because I'm freezes so easily. Well, and the price... Because of that, I won't go deeper into the sea life here.
The endemic crabs are: Galapagos Hermit Crab; Calcinus explorator, Sally Lightfoot Crab; Grapsus grapsus. Her are also the Fiddler Crab; Uca helleri, Ghost Crab; Ocypode gaudichaudii, Hairy Rock Crab; Geograpsus lividus, Semi-terrestrial Hermit Crab; Coenobita compressus and Velvet-fingered Ozius; Ozius verreauxi.
The biggest problems for the islands these days is the introduction of foreign species of plants (near 900) and animals along with the colonisation of man kind. While the tourists contribute economical to the community, they also ware down the nature and bring pollution with them. Much is being done to control the whereabouts of tourists, and it seems to work fine. Much still have to be done about waste and waste water.
Another thread come form the local inhabitants, which numbers are, as mentioned before, growing with up to 10% annually. This is a spinoff from the tourist industry. The impact might be controlled by the fact the islands are 97% National Park, and so fare; they have been very strict on this.
Much have lately been done to control both invasive plants, animals and humans, and progress have been noted. I hope I can contribute to this process. Especially goats have been shoot in large numbers along with pigs. Plants are cultivated in nurseries and areas are re-planted with the original flora. Tortoises are bread in centres and released too.
The invasive species is mainly cattle, goats, donkeys, pigs, dogs, cats and rats. Along with them, almost 900 species of plants have been introduced - almost twice as many as the originals! Due to the previous lack of competition, the native species are having a hard time competing with these fears species. If nothing is done, these islands might end up being as ordinarily as a Mediterranean island!
San Cristobal, which I will spent most time on, is the easternmost island in the Galápagos archipelago, and one of the oldest geologically. Its Spanish name "San Cristóbal" comes from the patron saint of seafarers, St. Christopher. Its older English name of Chatham is that of William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham.
San Cristobal has an area of 558 km2 and its highest point rises to 730 metres above the sea. It is around 50 kilometres long and fifteen wide. The capital of the archipelago, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (called Port), lies at the south-western tip of the island. The population is around 7000.
This island hosts frigate birds, Galapagos Sea Lions, Galapagos Tortoises, Blue and Red Footed Boobies, Tropical Birds, Marine Iguanas, dolphins, Swallow-tailed Seagulls and much more. Its vegetation, of which almost half is endemic includes Talinum galapagosum (Calandrinia galapagosa), Lecocarpus darwinii and trees such as Lignum vitae. In the waters nearby are sharks, rays, and lobsters.
The largest fresh water lake in the archipelago, Laguna El Junco, is located in a crater in the highlands of San Cristobal, in the southern half of the island. Nearby, La Galapaguera is a breeding station and sanctuary for giant tortoises.
The Project I have involved my self
Hacienda Tranquila which is located in the heights, near La Solodad. Accordantly to them selves:
Volunteers work to reverse
the negative effects of invasive or introduced species, restoring
the native and endemic forests of San Cristobal."
I have to take the first train in the morning, which is on time, despite the winter weather. Quite a line in Copenhagen airport, but efficient handled by the crew.
While I bend under a crow-control barrier, I make a crack in my pans, all the way from the belt to the zipper! Got ten minutes to find a new pair. Luckily, one cloth shop is open, despite the time. They have one pair that fits me - in the waist; they lack five centimetres in length. Well, it is only $260; cheap for a Porsche. Didn't know they made trousers. The early morning flight brings me to Frankfurt with SAS - 80 minutes delayed due to snow in Frankfurt: They got one centimetre!
That leave me with ten minutes to shift to the Huston plain with Luftwaffe. I get a guided run through the airport, and I only delay the plain five minutes. Don't feel bad about that; we have to wait for more than two and a half hour on the runway, for the snow to melt. Eleven hours day-flight is not my cup of tea, especially with a chopped Luftwaffe plane with only two crappy common movies. Luckily, the German lady on on my left and the American gentleman on my right are real pleasant people.
A new American law makes it impossible to have your luggage checked all the way through; the Americans want to poke through it, even though you don't get it on their soil. Does not matter much, I'm 45 minutes late for the plane anyway, due to German in-efficient.
Take two hours to go throw security checks, photo and fingertip scanning. Then, when my big bag get scanned, the conveyor belt brakes down. I'm told to leave my bag, and head on for the ticket office.
No more flights to Quito today, and I can only get a stand-bye for tomorrow, and a guarantied seat Saturday. Not good enough: If I don't get at seat Friday, I will miss my weekly connecting flight to San Cristobal. Luckily, this is not LA, and the employees in the airport are real friendly. After having evolved quite a few, they find a flight with Continental Airways at 23.00 - to Bogota in Colombia. Three hours waiting, and then an Avianca flight to Quito. I should get there, only 12 hours delayed. It sure beat spending a night and half a day in Huston, just to wait just one more, and miss the connecting flight in Quito!
Then I have to find my big bag and get on the right plane. It are not aloud to travel without me, so it won't catch up. The Baggage Service office - in another terminal - promise me; it will be re-directed. I find my terminal and a meal. Then it is just to wait for three hours. Give me time to remember: When I visit Ecuador in 1997, I swore: Never again Avianca. When I was in Mexico in 2005, I swore: Never again Lufthansa. Well, here I am again, and how am I doing?!
12. No surprise, we are one hour delayed, but who cares? It just shortens the time I'll have to wait in Bogota. Sit next to a girl who was borne in Columbia, but lives in the US, working as a graphic designer. We talk (well, mostly me, I guess) through the four and a half hour night flight. Get to Bogota at six, which leave me three hours to try four counters, pointing at each others. I did not eat the oily meal on the plane, and take revenge with the airport’s only sandwich with salad. My Visa card is bounced, and I have to find a way to change US$ to the local currency; Pesos.
Have to remember setting the watch one hour forward after the six back in Huston. I haven’t slept at all for 31 hours, and I’m having a hard time figuring where I come from, and where I’m heading: Tricky questions! I’m awake enough to check that my big really ARE checked through, like they claimed in Huston: it is NOT! Trust is good, control is better!
A bit delayed once again, but beside from that, Avianca works fine, and it is a nice, new plane. Get through the airport recently fast, and head out to Quito. The city is the second highest capital of the world, 2,850 metres above sea level. With its more that 1.500.000 citizens, it is a real pulsating town, full of markets, old colonial houses and colours! I have been here before (1997 and 2009), and now, I will only be here two half days in-between flights. I was here just three months ago, and have no desire to explore the town, although it is a nice capital indeed! But; I could do with some more T-shirts - and a haircut, fitted for this pleasant climate.
After half hour taxi drive, I reach the pre-booked Secret Garden Hostel. I've been on the road for 37 hours, I haven't slept at all, and now, it is mid-day. I might as well take a walk in the city. The local currency is American dollars, and I have brought some to keep me "alive". It is a real nice, partly clouded day with 25C. I need a haircut, and get one twenty meters down the road, for three dollars. Find six T-shirts for $40 (some with a little crocodile on), and make a stroll through the business area - mainly for my body's sake. No photos this time: Plenty last time.
Spent the late afternoon on the cosy roof terrace, and choose to eat there as well. Chat with some of the others, but the bed draws immensely!
13. A rather slow start on the day with breakfast on the roof, followed by a taxi drive to the airport at ten. The Tame plane leaves on time, and after three and a half hour with a hour stop at Guayaquil, the islands are seen in the mist.
The real adventure starts in Part Two.