Sunday, April 1, 2012

Tips to Future Galapagos Travelers

We were on itinerary A, so that is tailoring our view of the trip.
  1. The most important thing to us is that this is not like a typical Celebrity cruise.  Just don’t expect that it will be.  The food is not nearly as good (mostly it is edible, but Julie didn’t like an awful lot of it).  The service is first rate.  But the incessant excursions, twice a day for every day is very wearing.  You start at 8am every day and usually return around 6pm after the second excursion.  So, it is VERY tiring.  Pace yourself.
  2. Wear light colored clothing (white, beige, muted colors and no yellows).  In a lot of locations, they told us no bright colors as it attracts wasps.  Heed their warning.
  3. Be casual.  The documents talk about wearing nice clothes to dinner.  It is ok if you want to do that, but wearing shorts and a shirt is just fine.  I think that we got less motivated to dress for dinner as the time wore on.
  4. Think long and hard about doing a back to back.  According to the naturalists, the second week is exactly like the first one, just different islands.  You see all of the same animals, just in slightly different settings.  The only thing that we missed was the waved albatross, which hasn’t migrated to the islands yet.
  5. Take advantage of all of the water opportunities.  We had them early in the cruise and didn’t understand that they end early and you don’t get any more (they ended on Thursday for us).  They really could have more swimming and snorkeling opportunities.
  6. The head naturalist really warned and warned that the long walks were very difficult and the advanced snorkeling was only for advanced snorkelers.  She really over did the warnings.  For example, for advanced snorkeling, she said all kinds of warnings, but as long as you have experience snorkeling when you can’t touch the bottom you will be fine.  We missed out on a number of advanced snorkeling opportunities until Bob did one the last day.  We should have done them all.  The warnings on the long hikes was also similar and Bob went on the most complicated one with “rock climbing” and it was just a couple of lava boulders that you had to climb over.
  7. The zodiac rides are great.  We ultimately preferred the options with longer zodiac rides and shorter walks.  But be careful, the shorter walks are really short and often you are just standing around.
  8. Don’t expect to get much exercise from the walks.  You stop and talk about stuff all of the time.
  9. Bob wore Tevas for the water landings (but eventually switched to doing barefoot landings which worked just great).  Using tennis shoes for the dry landings worked great.  Often when walking with open toed shoes, or even those with open sides, people were stopping and clearing rocks and debris out from their shoes.  Bob thinks that Tevas and Tennis shoes worked just great.
  10. The all-inclusive drinks and tips is very nice.  You just don’t worry about ordering a beer or wine with lunch.  It just works great.
  11. If you have the ability, upload your pictures to a computer or at least save them on multiple cards in case you lose your camera.
  12. The Internet is so freaking slow that it is almost impossible to use.  Also, apparently they turn it off on the final morning, so don’t save your minutes (which we did).
  13. We are both Elite members and when we asked for internet and massage, they only gave us 1 hour of internet and a 30 minute massage. We have heard that we should have gotten three hours and two 30 minute massages.  We asked the people at guest services and that is what they said.  If you are both Elite, make sure that you ask for double.

Day 9, Sunday, Mar 18, 2012, Baltra Island

Today is travel day back on the charter to Quito.  We had to be out of our room by 8am and then were scheduled to debark on the final zodiac ride back to the pier at 9:30.  At 9am, they handed out boarding passes.  We boarded the zodiacs for the last time (they truly were a fun part of the trip) and made it back to the shore.  We then got on buses and headed to the airport. 

The airport is “interesting” – limited facilities, but functional.  All outside, but covered and tons of fans.  The charter flight was on schedule and uneventful.  When we got off the plane, we walked out and got on the buses for the ride to the hotel.  The guide (Diego) gave a long talk about exactly what was happening for the rest of the day and next.  It was so detailed that it answered every possible question (from details on the shopping excursion, the dinner that night, to how breakfast and the bus loading for the trip back to the airport next day).  

Day 8, Saturday, Mar 17, 2012, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Puerto Aroya is located on the south side of Santa Cruz Island (we were on the north side the previous day).  We entered the bay and dropped anchor at about 6:45.  There were huge swells coming into the bay and the ship was rolling a TON (it continued this all day long).  It must have something to do with the flat bottom of the ship or something.

Anyway, Puerto Aroya is an inhabited city of about 15K people.  It includes the Darwin Center where they work to do the research end of things for the National Park.  We got off the ship at 8:00 am and took the zodiacs into a dry landing at a pier.  There was a bus waiting that took us the very short 1km drive to the Darwin center.  Our naturalist (Will) guided us through the facility.  We learned about dome shaped and saddle back tortoises.  The saddle back ones is actually the ones that were first discovered by the Spanish and they ended up naming the islands Galapagos which is the Spanish name for a Spanish saddle, which their shells resembled.  There were originally 14 different species of tortoises on the islands (the dome shaped ones are on the big islands with volcanoes and the saddle back ones are on the small, ones without the volcanoes).  It is clear that their difference is due to the environmental adaptation.  Three of the 14 are already extinct and one of them has only one tortoise left – Lonesome St. George, which is housed in the Darwin Center.

Will showed us some tiny, baby turtles (born in 2012 and they were about 5 inches long), wandering around a pen.  Since each island has its own species of tortoise, they have to keep them separate to make sure that as they age they are taken back to the proper island (which is usually when they are about 5 years old).  

The Center goes out and collects tortoise eggs from the egg nests, bring them back to the Center and incubate them until they hatch.  One interesting fact is the eggs are asexual when they are laid.  Then depending on the temperature of the nest area (and in this case, the temperature of the incubation) they are either male (28 degrees C) or female (29.5 degrees C).  They have a whole processing center to help the tortoises grow and get big enough that they can survive out in the wild. 

They have been highly successful, for example, one of the islands went from 14 existing tortoises to over 1000 due to the raising program.

Next we saw Lonesome George, a giant tortoise from an island in the northeast (Pinta).  He is the last surviving member of his species.  He has been in captivity for the past 40 years and for the last 20 or so they have been having 2 female tortoises that are similar in DNA (although not exact) and trying to convince him to mate with them.  No luck so far.  So, unless they can figure some way to get him to reproduce, they will lose another species.

This is Lonesome George:

We also saw some more giant tortoises that are well over 100 years old and very large (they continue to get bigger the longer that they live).

After that, we headed out of the Center area and walked through town back to the pier.  We bought some souvenirs and then returned to the ship.

We had lunch with the head naturalists.  She told us that the islands are around 300 miles wide and 225 miles high.

The afternoon tour is a 45-minute bus ride to the highlands.  An hour or so walk around some fields to try and discover some tortoises in the wild and then another 45 minute ride back.  The first bus was sitting there with the windows open.  One of the guests noticed this and looked at the second bus waiting which was sitting there with its windows closed.  He asked if we could use that bus and the answer was yes, so we got an air conditioned bus instead of 860 bus (8 windows open going 60 mph).  The bus hauled us up the side of the mountain.  It was very green with lots of trees.  

The sky was a bit overcast and the temperature dropped as we went higher up the side of the mountain.  Eventually we made it to the tortoise reserve.  The area is owned by a bunch of farmers and is the only place where you can find them in a space that tourists are actually able to find them without hiking to the tops of mountains (it is very rare to be able to find them down near the ocean like we did – as they mostly hang out up in the highlands).  The national park does this so tourists are guaranteed to be able to at least find some “in the wild”. 

The highlands can be really wet and muddy.  They apparently have rubber boots that you can get so you don’t wreck your shoes.  Fabrizio didn’t offer them to us as he heard it was ok, but other naturalists did have their people wearing them.  It was certainly damp and in some cases muddy, so you had to be careful where you walked.  We ended up seeing about a dozen tortoises, some were very old and very large. 

This is Julie's favorite tortoise picture:

Fabrizio offered the following guidelines for how to live a long life just like a tortoise:
  • Eat as a vegan, only plants.
  • Get up early and go to bed early (no partying and no drinking).
  • Work very hard all day long.
  • Reproduce only once a year and make sure that you do it for at least 3 hours continuously.  Multiple wives and husbands also works well.

He said that if you follow these guidelines you could live to be hundreds of years old.

When we were finishing, the guides (first Fabrizio and Marvin, and then Marvin wearing it like a teenage ninja turtle) put on a shell from a dead tortoise.  It was amazing:

After the walk, we stopped at the gift shop/snack bar for 10 minutes and then headed for the bus.  We were delayed after one of the guests in front of me figured out that he lost his camera.  His wife had stayed on the ship and he said that she would kill him because all of their pictures were on the camera.  Eventually, John from New Zealand, the camera guy with two long zoom Nikon cameras found the guys camera on the ground.  Whew.  While we were leaving the guy who lost the camera said, don’t tell my wife, she will never let me go by myself on an excursion with a camera.  The guy next to me quipped, ok, what bribe are you going to pay?

Next stop was a lava tube, which we walked down a bunch of steep steps to get into.  The lights were on and it was really cool.  It was about 30 feet high and about 20 feet wide.  The floor was wet and muddy in spots, so those that managed to keep their shoes from getting wrecked at the tortoise place had to be very careful in the tube.  Note – Bob later learned that some of the groups that were in there before us, the lights were off and that would have been not nearly as much fun.  Yes, you may have noticed that we were the first off the ship, but not the first to the lava tube.  We have observed that Fabrizo enjoys guiding so much that we end up spending more time than normal.  As near as Bob could tell, we were the third group to go down the lava tube.

We eventually made it back to the port and boarded the zodiacs for the trip back to the ship.  When we got off, they turned on the shower things to wash off your shoes.  They even had scrub brushes to get them clean.  Bob had taken his old tennis shoes on the trip and just took them off and dumped them into the trash.

Tonight is the last night, so they did a slide show presentation (the guides are always taking pictures) during the cocktail hour.  It was great and at the end they gave everyone a copy of the slide show and the raw pictures that they had taken.  The naturalists really got a lot of great shots, many which we will integrate into with ours.

Next was dinner and then we packed, put the bags out (you can leave our bags in the hallway after dinner, but at least by 5am), and hit the sack.

Day 7, Friday, Mar 16, 2012, South Plaza Island and Santa Cruz Island

Because the previous night was a late night the first excursion of South Plaza Island left at 8:30 instead of 8:00.  That was the short zodiac ride and long walk.  The 9:00 excursion was the long zodiac ride and short walk.  We opted for the 9:00 one because Julie really likes the exploring the shore in the zodiac.  Also, the short walk was essentially the same territory as the longer one.

We went around the shore of the North Plaza Island (these islands are tiny, maybe 500 yards wide and a mile or so long).  We saw the Swallow Tail Gull which is the only nocturnally feeding sea gull in the world.  It has red eyes and a ring around its eyes that is used when it is feeding its chicks in the night time to be able to see where the parent’s mouth is for feeding.  We also saw a bunch of sea lions, some boobies, and other birds.

Eventually we went to South Plaza Island for a dry landing.  We got off and wandered around the interesting terrain with lots of small plants and prickly pear cacti.  We saw a number of land iguanas whose main diet consists of the prickly pear cactus leaves and flowers (eating the spikes and all).  

There was also a team from the national park that was catching the iguana, tagging, weighing and gathering blood samples.  Some used long poles with looped rope on the end to snag the iguana, while others just walked up behind them and grabbed them.

After about a 45 minute walk, we went back to the ship on the zodiac, showered and got ready for lunch (a Mexican buffet).  At 2pm, we expected a talk on life in the Galapagos by the naturalists.  Since they were all (or mostly all) born in the Galapagos, they talked about what it was like to grow up here.  However, what they did was divided up the room in three groups, and allowed us all to ask questions about their lives here on Galapagos.  We were in Marvin’s group.  He was born on Santa Cruz Island and is in fact a second generation Galapagosian (if that is the way you say it).  It was interesting to learn a bit about life here and also his personal experience.  It turns out that he is extremely bright and it really shows in his interactions and understanding.

The afternoon walks were on Santa Cruz Island to Dragon Hill.  You basically visit a couple of brackish lagoons where you may find flamingos and then go around Dragon hill that has a lot of land iguanas.  We were both kind of burned out from all of the excursions without a break, so we decided to bail on the afternoon walks (frankly it seemed like there was nothing new that we were going to be seeing). 
For the cocktail party, it was supposed to be margaritas but they ran out of mix and did some weird concoction that was kind of like a daiquiri.  Dr. Ellen Prager (the chief scientist for the Xpedition) gave a talk about her book: Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime.  Over the course of the week, we learned that she is on board about 3 or 4 times a year when they have a room available.  She coordinates the program and was here to see how the new A/B itinerary rotation schedule is working out.

After that it was the nightly briefing and then karoke after.  Dinner with Mitch and Steve.  Mitch sang several times as did some really, singing challenged cruisers.

Day 6, Thursday, Mar 15, 2012, Isabela and Fernandina Islands

Over night, we sailed to the very top of Isabela island, where the mouth of the sea horse is (if you look at a map of the Galapagos, Isabela looks like a giant sea horse with a big boot on the bottom).  This is a very restricted area, so you are only allowed to do 3 boats at a time, and only for an hour.  So, they ran things in two shifts.  We were on the first shift at 8am. 

After the quick trip, we explored the coastline from the zodiac.  The coastline is actually about half of a crater from an extinct volcano (half of it doesn’t exist and much of it is underwater).  There is a sheer 1000 foot wall which is the wall of the crater.  We saw our first fur seals (very similar to the sea lions).  The big difference is that the seals have a “home” and generally stay within a few miles of that home.  Whereas sea lions just move around wherever the fish is located.

We also saw the small (about 1 foot long) Galapagos penguins swimming (who are really, really fast under water).  We also saw some wingless cormorants, blue-footed boobies, and marine iguanas.  

One really interesting part is where there is a cave that is hollowed out and we went right inside it in the boat. 

After that, we returned to the boat and got ready for an “advanced” snorkel, which basically took us back to the same area and we swam around.  Bob did it and Julie stayed on the ship.  The water was very cold, so he wore a wet suit.  We swam for about 45 minutes.  

The water was a bit murky, but still got to see sea turtles, penguins, and several different kinds of fish.  Two highlights were a seal under the water playing with a dead fish, and a young seal that came out and investigated us, swimming within 5 feet of us.  We also were visited by a bunch of young pelicans who floated around with us, checking us out.  It was a very nice snorkel.  Bob returned to the ship and we ate lunch.  The ship was repositioning itself across the bay area to Punta Espinoza on Fernandina Island.

As a part of being an Elite Celebrity member, we were given a free 30-minute massage.  Having never had a massage before, Bob got to experience it at 2pm that day.  The massage therapist worked on his shoulder that he had injured about a month ago when he slipped on the ice.

We chose the 1-hour short walk at Punta Espinoza, which was a dry landing.  The area is another seabed uplift.  Fernandina is one of the youngest and thus most active volcanic islands.  It also is completely pristine (apparently the largest such island) with no species of flora or fauna introduced by man.   The walk was across a lava field and some sand.  We saw several swimming marine iguana and others lounging on the banks spitting the salt out of their nostrils.  

We also saw several sea tortoises, lots of crabs and lava lizards.  The only downside was the 1-hour walk turned into an over 2-hour “short” walk.

The evening cocktail party (which starts at 6:45 every night) was Pisco Sours.  We didn’t return from the walk until after 7 and had to take a quick shower to get ready for the briefing, which we barely made to.  

We then went to dinner with Steve and Mitch-it was Mitch’s birthday.  After dinner, we went to the crossing the equator celebration which included lots of antics by the naturalists (including one dressed up as King Neptune) and the guests.  Then everyone got up and did YMCA and they played lots of classic rock and roll.