We were lost at sea. And I’m not speaking figuratively or dramatically either. I’m not exaggerating incidents or concocting a tale for story-telling purposes.
We were honestly and truthfully lost at sea.
Listen, I’m jumping ahead because I need you to understand this. I need you to know that if you ask about our trip to the Islas Galápagos, it is possible I may hesitate in answering. I may stumble on my words and not know what to say. Andy too, the same reaction. That’s because when you ask about our trip, flashbacks of being lost at sea — the circling-circling, the floating and floating in an endless blue ocean, hour upon hour — those visions. That’s what I see when you ask about our trip.
I needed to explain that upfront. Because my answer — the one I hope will come out — should be that our journey was incredible, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and special in ways I may not never be able to word. The truth is it was, well, a memorable trip . . .
* * *
“We should have learned Spanish,” Andy said as we approached our airline’s ticket counter. The woman behind it looked up. “Do you speak English?” he asked the lady.
“Eh, little,” she said wagging her head from right and left.
“Is it possible to get on the 6:00 a.m. flight instead of this one?” Andy inquired, pointing to our printout which listed our afternoon flight. “Our flights were changed last minute and now we have an almost thirteen hour layover here.” Here was Peru, the third of five airports we would fly into over the span of two days. We had been through sunrises and sunsets on planes . . .
so that our main desire heading to the Islas Galápagos was simply to have an actual bed to sleep in.
“Eh. No. Your flight is at 1:30 p.m.” She smiled. As if that helped.
“Si, but are there seats on the 6:00 a.m. plane?”
“6:00 a.m.? You want 6:00 a.m.?” the woman asked.
“Si!” we exclaimed together, waiting with bated breath.
“Ohhh,” she exhaled. “The flight — full. No seats.”
That was my first taste of the Islas Galápagos, though we were not even there yet. Flights fill quickly and for good reason too: Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and located slightly below the equator, the Galápagos is an archipelago consisting of Ecuadorian islands that are some of the most original, diverse, and unique in the world.
Unable to get an earlier flight, Andy and I returned — dejected — to our airport bench, the one we left imprints on due to the fact that we stayed on or returned to it during that nearly thirteen hour layover. The minutes dragged and the hours stretched endlessly, the way time does when there is anticipation for the future. So we talked on that bench, played cards on the bench, slept on that bench, watched soccer (okay — football, my English friends), read on it, and slept more.
Finally — finally — it was time to check-in. But of course, our life isn’t that simple . . .
Waiting in line, a short man of about five feet approached Andy. He appeared Peruvian, wearing a large-brimmed hat and brightly colored clothing that fell in layers. Without a word, he handed Andy his cell phone.
Andrew took it — don’t ask me why. “Uh,” Andy said to the man before looking at me. I looked at Andy. The Peruvian man, determined, waved his hands towards Andy then smiled and stepped closer. They were about a foot apart. It seemed an intimate exchange.
“Eh,” Andy examined the phone before trying to hand it back, but the Peruvian man refused to take it. “Sir,” Andy said in his British accent. “I’m not sure what you want me to do?”
The Peruvian man smiled wider, teeth showing, and nodded.
“Uh, L — What does he want me to do?” (I, by the way, was no help due to the fact that I was suppressing laughter from finding his dilemma highly entertaining.) “Sir, I don’t understand? I don’t know what you want me to do?” and here, Andrew’s voice became more stern as he held out the phone once more. Another man in front of us turned so that now three people were watching Andrew — the Peruvian man, me, and the man ahead of us in line. The Peruvian glanced from Andy’s hand to his face, hand to face, and made a motion for Andy to accept the phone what-seemed-to-be eternally. Both stranger-men then smiled, mission seeming done.
“I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT ME TO DO!” Andy shouted. “Does he want me to turn it on for him?” Andrew asked the man in front of us, who only smiled. Andy looked to the Peruvian man again: “Sir, do you want me to turn your phone on for you?!” The Peruvian man nodded; however, it was clear no man understood one another. I was finding it harder to contain myself — Did Andrew really just ask him if he wanted help turning on his own phone?! Sure enough, I watched in horror as Andy began to poke buttons until the phone lit up.
“Right. Here you go,” satisfied with his technological help, Andrew tried again to return it but his friend refused. “I. DON’T. KNOW. WHAT. YOU. WANT. FROM. ME!” Andy appeared frantic, terrified even, so I realized I needed to get involved. We watched as the Peruvian man pointed to the screen and tapped it multiple times with his fingernail.
“Andrew,” I exclaimed, “he is telling you the time!”
“Ohhh,” Andy exhaled, bending to the short man’s level. “3:16?” The man nodded again, though we realized his nods did not indicate a breakthrough in conversation. “Right,” Andy confirmed by pointing to the departure board which also bared the time. “3:16 a.m.” and here, he thrust, forcefully, the phone back at its owner.
The Peruvian man took it but a look of longing remained in his eyes. Clearly something more needed to be done. I glanced at Andy’s hands where the phone once was and noticed his watch. “The time, Andrew — I think he wants you to set your watch.”
“Ohhh,” turning the dial quickly, Andy was eager to show his friend he comprehended but it was too late. The Peruvian man had given up and returned to stand next to his wife, his back to us.
“That went well,” I said. “Essentially he understood us as successfully as we understood him.”
Our line moved up a little as I heard Andrew again mutter in a voice filled with regret, “We should have learned Spanish.”
This became our most-used phrase because, of course, it was true. However, we did pick up a few sentences, such as “Buenos dias!” which we both said to the flight attendants . . . ignoring the fact that it was the afternoon; ‘afternoon’ was beyond our limited vocabulary. Everyone was polite though so we boarded and buckled up then set off, flying over Peru and its incredible mountains.
“Pst,” I said to Andy, peering through the crevice between my seat and the one next to me because he was diagonally behind. “Do you have our passports?”
“What?” he leaned forward. Clearly I had to speak louder.
“Our passports?” I tried again in a stronger hushed voice. “Do you have our passports?” This, I should mention, is a question I regularly ask myself when we fly, though for whatever reason I wait to ask this the moment we have taken off.
“L,” panic washed over his face. “What do you mean ‘our passports?’ I gave them to you!”
I could feel his panic spread. “What do you mean ‘You gave them to me?’!”
“’I gave them to you’ means ‘I gave them to you’!” As Andy’s voice rose, so did his body out of the seat, disregarding the need to keep seat belts fastened. People were starting to turn and stare.
“Okay. Calm down. I don’t remember you giving them to me but let me check my bag.” I slid my bag from the under the seat in front and unzipped its compartments. Compartment One: No passports. Not a big deal, I said to myself. I wouldn’t have put it in that part anyway. Compartment Two: No passports. That’s fine. They shouldn’t have been in that one either. I continued riffling through to Compartment Three. WOW! I didn’t even know I had this compartment! I smiled and turned to tell Andy until I saw his eyes — fixated, not patient or understanding. Focus! I reprimanded myself, I don’t think he’d appreciated the news and so into Compartment Three I looked only to find there were still no passports. Don’t worry, don’t worry — I didn’t know that compartment existed until now, I reminded myself, fighting back the urge to be concerned. Onward to Compartment Four! I thought. This is surely where it is supposed to be. Except they weren’t. They weren’t there or anywhere in my pack. I replaced it under the seat.
“Andrew, I do not have them – I did not have them.”
“Yes you do! I gave them to you!”
“I’m convinced we left them on the counter when we got our boarding passes! I don’t remember picking them up. I certainly don’t remember you giving them to me!” I pulled my pack out a second time and rummaged through it without luck. Under the seat it went again . . . only to be pulled back out . . . and put back what-felt-like a million times more as we continued to debate on the plane.
“Bloody hell! Are you kidding me?! I GAVE them to YOU!” By this time, we were both yelling and a flight attendant seemed to be making her way towards us.
“Shhh,” I told him. “Let’s walk through the steps – The man gave us boarding passes. We walked onto the plane. I did not have anything – no passports, no boarding passes — and I know that because I did not even know where we were sitting when we walked down the aisle. I had to ask you. Once we sat down, then you handed me the boarding passes.”
“Let me see the boarding passes,” Andy said. I wasn’t sure what that proved but I showed him anyway.
“Right. That means you have the passports,” he replied with new clarification . . . which didn’t actually clarify anything for me.
“Andrew! If I HAD them I would, we would have had our boarding passes IN our passports – as we have done for EVERY FLIGHT THUS FAR!” All concerns on the flight attendant reprimanding us were gone due to the fact that he needed to understand the urgency of the situation — Someone somewhere had our passports and it wasn’t me. Imagines of Spanish officers detaining us flashed into my mind. Would we be allowed into the country? Would we be allowed back into our own country? What would happen?!
I was about to ask the man behind me if I could sit on his lap in an effort to be closer to Andrew when instead I asked, “Do you want to look through my pack?”
“Yes!” I heard him say so I once more, I grabbed it and ransacked it again. “LOOK!” I hollered, “Compartment Four,” I announced, tugging down the zippers. “No pass – ” I stopped. There – in the front of the pouch, hunkered down inside were our passports.
“For fuck’s sake!!!” Andrew exhaled before falling into his seat where he refused to talk to me for the rest of the flight . . .
Unfortunately, our traveling horrors were far from over.
“If you are headed to Quito, you missed your flight so go to Gate Seven; if you are headed to Buenos Aires, check in at Gate Thirteen. If you are headed to . . . ” the flight attendants listed gates as our plane landed.
“What are we going to do?” I asked Andy, hoping the fact that our Quito flight left without us would be reason enough for him to talk to me again.
“We’re going to have to go to the Information Desk,” I heard him mummer as we grabbed our bags and left the plane.
“Excuse me, sir,” Andy asked an airport attendant at the gate. “We were supposed to board the flight to Quito but we missed — ” and here he was cut off.
“Quito?” they asked. We nodded our heads. “The plane is about to leave. Go to Gate Thirteen. Right now!” and he pointed.
“Right! Gate Thirteen – How long do we have?” Andy called over his shoulder as he jogged away.
“Eh . . . TEN . . . TEN MINUTES!” the man yelled, cupping his hand around his mouth.
“TEN MINUTES?!” I shrieked and off we ran, rushing down the gate and through the airport, darting between and around people while the sound of my flip-flops — loud and angry — slapped the floor.
“You’re quiet,” Andy puffed next to me, sarcastic, as we raced on to cover what-felt-like every square foot of the airport. Airport staff, restaurant workers, store personnel — all magically aware of where we needed to go — pointed directions as we raced past.
“Ma’am! MA’AM!” I heard someone shout from behind me as I turned to see her point to the floor where my belongings lay scattered for several feet. My pack was unzipped.
“Go, just go!” I yelled to Andy. “GOOOO!” I yelled again, feeling as if I was in a Jurassic Park movie, our time running out before something horrible was about to happen. “MAKE IT ON YOUR OWN!!! GOOOOOO!!!” and off I turned to collect my belongings — neck pillow, book, pins, God knows what else — and jammed them back in as I scrambled to catch up to my now-vanished fiance.
Moments later, out of breath and sweating something fierce, I joined Andy at our gate. “I smell something awful,” I huffed as a hello, knowing full-well it is never a good sign if you can smell yourself.
“Here,” the airline representative reached for our newly printed boarding passed before handing them over. “Go,” he directed and we ran down the gate and onto the plane, hearing the flight attendants lock the door behind us. Eyes stared as we passed, our walk of shame for holding the flight, until we found our seats.
Two hours later an announcement blared on the speakers: “Su atención, por favor!” Attention, I thought. Right, I know that word. And please, ow! You’re doing great! You can totally do this! Despite the fact that I have never taken a Spanish class, I remained confident . . . until a racket of Spanish — sentence after sentence, paragraph following paragraph — strung through the air.
And we waited.
“Surely, they’ll translate in English,” Andy said as we looked around. No one seemed bothered. Well maybe the old crusty couple in the back, but I wasn’t positive they even heard the indoctrination; it seemed they were fiddling with their hearing aids attempting to get on the level we were at least in. We waited again. Some people began to twist around in their seats.
“Something is happening,” I whispered to Andrew, wanting to blend in.
“Yea, and we have no idea what,” he said. So we did what everyone else was doing — looked around, alert, as if we too were searching for someone. All I found noteworthy though was this massive sinkhole in the middle of the ocean.
“SU ATENCIÓN!!!” the announcement roared again, sounding more urgent. Then Spanish words — every Spanish word — was blasted through the speakers. I felt panic rising. This was important! What if something bad was happening? What if we needed to grab our oxygen masks? What if the plane was about to crash?! What if they discovered something deadly on the plane?! What were they telling us?!?!
I looked to Andy for guidance. His facial expressions mirrored my concern. “Surely if it is important, they will translate,” Andy said again until we discovered — for the second time — we were past the point of no return. There would be no translation, now or after. “We should have learned Spanish,” we said at the same time.
In the end, don’t ask me what they said on the plane. There were multiple announcements — constant — and they sounded repetitive except for the fact that some words had stronger accents than others, that type of accents that sounds scary, that demands an intensity from deep within the speaker’s throat. All I can say is we may have missed the most life-essential information but — by chance — we made it to Galápagos in one piece.
Or what we thought was the Islas Galápagos.
When the plane landed, this is what we saw out the window: barren, dry, rocky earth.
“Did we get on the wrong plane?” Andy murmured. “Are we on the right planet?” he asked as we peering through the window and onto the Mars-like land.
People started to stand and pull their belongings from the overhead bins so we stood too before following them down the aisle, through the gateway and into the airport where we saw a man holding a sign with Andy’s last name. Inhaling, we waved as we walked over. And thank God for us, he spoke English.
“Weeelcome to the Islas Galápagos, my friends! Let’s get your bags and board a ferry to Isla Saaanta Cruz.” Just like that, we were off.
Off to where we thought was our resort but was instead our first land tour. “Today, you are goooing to see the giiiant tortoises!” our guide, Dario, informed us. Dario, we learned, is “a true Galápagonian” and the type with a soft-spoken voice, one that allows you to immediately trust him. Every other word was stretched, extended with his exhale and arms stretched by his sides, so that the most simple words — tortoise, nature, birds, pond — somehow seemed romantic and intimate.
Our truck, one of the thousands of same-model white Toyota pick-ups, zoomed down the newly paved roads until El Chato Ranch appeared.
“This is a priiivate, natural tortoise ecolooogical reserve.” All Dario said made Andy and I inhale as if secrets to the island were spoken solely to us. We would nod quickly, eyes wide, and lean closer. He could have demanded anything from us and we would have been too captivated — and sleep deprived — to refuse.
Dario lead the way to a little shack for us to slide on tall boots “to protect from fiiire ants,” he said. Then we were off in the reserve with Dario, our private guide.
The giant tortoises were massive and beyond-belief size, which is remarkable given the fact that when they hatch, they are no larger than a fifty-cent coin. From there, they grow 2,000 times the size they were born. Overall, females can weigh 250 pounds and males can get up to 500. On this reserve though, there are only males.
Their size and weight depend on their age. Just like the rings in a tree, the rings on a tortoises’ shells identify age. The more visible the rings, the younger the tortoise; the more dull and weathered, the older the tortoise. This one, pictured above, was believed to be fifty years old while the one below was thought to be over one hundred.
Also, notice the different stances — The younger one was more scared and tucked himself into his shell. Most neither seemed to care that people were there, which is probably due to the rules enforced by Galápagonians: Everyone must maintain a distance of two meters from all animals. It may be the older ones realize this — The wise fellow pictured above stretched and raised himself before us, which apparently meant he was begging birds to clean him. As Dario said, “The birds and tortoises have a gooood relationship — The biiirds come and peck innnsects and parasites from the tortoises! And the tortoises feeeed the birds! Thiiis is nature!”
Dario’s passion illustrated more than what we saw — He was part of a group of dedicated people, people that serve as guardians over the Islas Galápagos. As Dario walked, his gaze was down, careful not to harm any creature, reminding us that all on the islands was fragile and precious, that it needed to be taken care of and looked after.
“Nature — undisturbed and wild — naaature is beauuutiful!” he called in front of us.
WOW! I thought, naaature! Not that I had missed nature before but it was incredible, overwhelming even listening to Dario and seeing the giant tortoises.
The animals were happy and healthy, bending to munch vegetation before moving their powerful legs pushed their bodies up to rise again.
The reserve was incredible — It did not have to replicate the tortoises’ natural habitat, as a zoo tries. Instead this area was its habitat, which Dario was eager to show us. His love for his homeland and the wildlife was evident. “Looook here,” he whispered practically tip-toeing to a water hole. “Tortoises in waaater!” and his eyes went wide, arms stretched again to his sides as if this was a miracle. “Tortoises in water . . . in their home . . . in their naaatural habitat! Amazing!” and we all sighed.
I appreciate what he wanted tourists to see — Tourists are raised looking at zoos, the so-called ‘animal protection’ sites that often do the opposite. Yet, the animals in this reserve could roam freely, eat freely, live freely.
This is important too because these tortoises (like many other animals there) are endemic, meaning they are only found on the Islas Galápagos. What is more astounding is that they are still there — still after they were pushed close to extinction.
This mostly began in the sixteenth century when whalers, fisherman, and fur traders began to invade the waters around the islands. In droves they came throughout the years, and the animals greeted them — They had never seen humans before so they were curious, friendly, and unafraid. That’s when the people attacked, taking advantage of the animals’ trusting nature. The people pulled the animals from the water and slaughtered them to near extinction. They weren’t the only threat though: Later pirates, preying on ships and searching for a place to hide, brought rats to the lands; then the Galápagonian people, needing food, brought over goats, cows, and chickens. These animals — and more — were introduced and they disrupted the harmony of all endemic. (For example, rats, goats, cows, and chickens destroy tortoise eggs and newborn tortoises.)
Because of this and more, the giant tortoise is listed as an endangered species today and this is why efforts are underway to increase the tortoise population. For instance, a whopping ninety percent of the land is for the giant tortoises. (To put that into perspective, only three percent is used as farmland for cows.) This dedication to space is also important because tortoises are territorial. As we soon saw, one tortoise intruded upon another only to be slow-chased from that portion of land. While this does happen, at least the more land provides increased areas for the tortoises to spread out.
Overall I did not realize how much the giant tortoises would affect me, but seeing them the first day we arrived allowed me to appreciate the islands from the start. The land — the animals, the flora, all contained on the earth itself — It is original and unique. All of it is precious.
Delving into the history of the islands, the Galápagos is one-point-seven million years old and was formed by one of the most active volcanic hot spots in the world. Because of these tectonic plates, the islands are constantly shifted, moved, and reformed — even as we speak. In all, twenty-one volcanoes can be found on the Galápagos; thirteen are still active today. In fact, one even erupted while we were there.
This is Volcan La Cumbre, located on Isla Fernandina. It is a shield volcano and the youngest there. These pictures, shared with me from a resident, show the powerful La Cumbre spewing flaming lava which dripped down the land. Lightning could also be seen with bolts a vibrant purple, indicating the hottest type.
While scary to know we were only forty miles from this fierce lava-spewing volcano, it was fascinating at the same time: We were almost witnessing creation. We were in the middle of the Galápagos forming and reforming itself again, as it has done for millions of years and as it will continue to do. Moving an estimated five to seven centimeters every year, the act of shedding old and creating new is the reason why undiscovered islands are in the process of forming right now.Yet, this volcanic activity means the Galápagos is also a threat to itself. Scientists calculate that in two million years, the islands will disappear entirely. While that may seem an impossibly-long amount of time, realize the change is already happening. The the flora, animals, land — all are slowly disappearing so that today approximately ten million animals have already vanished over the past five hundred years.
I say all of this to illustrate how spellbinding the islands are. The fact that they are still here — after all it has been through, after it is so delicate — it incredible. To be able to not only see the tortoises, but to travel through a lava tunnel a few feet from where tortoises were munching vegetation — it left me speechless.
This is one of other lava tunnels on the reserve. The opening of the tunnel we went into was about five feet high. Inside, it stretched to about six feet, but there was a large amount of soil (washed in by rains) that started to build up. In fact, Dario said about two to three meters of soil is inside the tunnel.
Meanwhile, little plants grow in the rich dirt, greedily gobbling up the small amounts of florescent lights that illuminated the inside.
The tunnel was about fifty meters long — a short explore — so once we were out, we headed back to the hut to exchange our shoes and then we were off to our resort, the Red Mangrove Eco-Luxury Hotel, which was beautiful.
To make it even better, when we arrived, we were greeted with the most delicious mango drink.Passing through the entryway, we walked into the resort’s restaurant, which leans over the ocean. There, we found sea lions bathing in the sun.Along with them, iguanas surrounded us, lounging on wooden planks to warm, while bright crabs scurried on the rocks below.
Exhausted after our travels, we returned to our room to shower and change before dinner where we feasted on the most delicious dishes of slow-cooked pork and fresh fish with shrimp. For dessert, we chose fruit drizzled with honey under vanilla ice cream. It was simple and sweet — the perfect way to describe how it felt to breathe in the ocean air and be in Galápagos together.
Day Two greeted us early with Andy’s alarm clock going off. It was time — the day we had been anticipating, the reason we were here: We were going scuba diving!
The Islas Galápagos are home to the second largest marine reserve in the world, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef taking first place. This day we were headed to Isla Floreana where a pod of at least twenty dolphin jumped above water . . .
and below, numerous sea lions swirled in a dance all their own. [Read More]
The next morning, we slept in. For the most part, I had recuperated — ‘recuperated’ meaning I could actually walk to the restaurant and remain seated with Andrew for breakfast, ‘recuperated’ meaning I could eat two pieces of toast and drink a cup of tea. I even managed to appear somewhat normal in this picture near two sleeping sea lions that were lounging on beach chairs.
While I do regret not being able to dive, this day proved to be one of the most relaxed and wonderful because we had unscheduled time. All of our days had some type of tour involved — whether a dive or land tour — so here, we were able to do whatever spur-of-the-moment idea we wanted. Eager to see the Galápagos community, we strolled hand-in-hand towards the city.
Walking in the town made us see a different type of Galápagos — one that was populated, vibrant, colorful, inviting, and warm.
Happy at our decision to roam the island, we settled down for lunch, then later dinner and drinks, before going to sleep.
Day Four and we were ready for our highland and beach tour. Walking out of our room, area birds seemed to invited us to enter for breakfast, flying next to us.
Previously birds like this canary seemed shy, landing near us for only a couple seconds before taking flight again.
Now though, this one bounced from chairs to napkins, before coming to rest on my cup.Again I thought This is the Galápagos where vibrant canaries land next to you. The thought made me both giggle and whisper to them as we slowly ate.
Stepping over iguanas, we made our way to the front of our resort until Fredericko, our private guide, arrived. Here we were ushered into a truck and taken to the highlands.
While the drive up was beautiful, what I really loved was the climb. I found myself appreciating the unique qualities of all trails while being happy and grateful for the chance to wander down this Galápagonian one.
The view at the top of Cerro Mesa was impressive, made even more special because there were practically no signs of development for as far as you could see.
Soon, a fine mist began to roll over the highlands covering the peaks from view. Fredericko talked about sailor folklore, how they believed the islands were enchanted because land would appear one moment and the next be gone.
At the top, we also learned about different species of tortoises. The tortoises here travel all the way from the top peaks of these highlands down to the sea to mate. It is a journey that takes about six to eight months and after they mate, they travel again back to the highlands. Because they have to travel through a large amount of vegetation, they appear different that the tortoises we saw earlier — These have thick long claws unlike the more toenail-appearance of the ones on the El Chato reserve.
This fellow had wandered from the highlands to find a cozy spot here to sleep.
Following the trail once more, we passed under trees covered in moss . . .
At our sides were bushes with the smallest little flowers, their yellow-insides consisting of even smaller flowers . . .and beside them, bananas and papayas — ready to be picked — hung from trees. Interestingly enough, all fruits and vegetables — sugar cane, coffee, banana, pineapple, more — were imported. Those fruits and veggies native to the islands (except for the waba) are poisonous to humans so those living here were forced to introduce edible ones.
Onward still, we soon arrived at the famous Galápagos sinkhole.
At the base of the sinkhole, there is a trail which cuts through this dream-like campsite.Here we learned more about the efforts to control Galápagos’s environment. For instance, people on the islands try not to introduce animals to the lands. In the highlands, a farmer introduced goats years ago but the goats continued to reproduce until it got out of control, which caused a major problem for the land, native animals, and vegetation. Fredericko told stories of how he and his family would travel to the highlands to hunt the goats for food. However, even with this, the goats were still harming the area. The Galápagonian people then determined there had to be a cull for the goats. Today, a rogue goat may still be spotted but there are not nearly as many as before.
Once our highland tour was complete, we headed to a nearby secluded beach, Garrapatero.
Heading towards the ocean, we walked on sand so soft and fine it felt as if it wasn’t there.
Driftwood clumped in various colors and shapes, appearing more as art . . .and ahead lay the most beautiful beach I have yet to see.
To the right lack lava rocks appeared to grow from the sand as ocean water splashed around them . . .On our left, a nearby Galápagos island peeked out from the sea, blue against blue . . .
Behind us, burgundy seaweed relaxed on the shore . . .
while the sand blushed in pinks and teals, yellows, browns . . .
until, closer to the ocean, the waves mixed and blurred the colors.
Following vines of bright fushia flowers, we arrived at one of two lagoons . . .We were told this lagoon sometimes has flamingos in the water but all we saw was a mockingjay perched on a post . . .
Heading back to the ocean, we ambled beside a trail of bird prints until we reached another lagoon to the left.
On the way, we found this bird perched motionless on lava rock, watching and waiting for its time to snatch bitty fish from the pool of water cut off from the ocean.
At the lagoon, the sand was so white I struggled to get pictures and chose to make the area appear darker so that the clear turquoise and teal water could better be seen.
Beside me, Andy stepped over small lava rocks until he reached several larger ones, which he climbed for a slightly higher view of the area . . .
We spent a good while on that beach, calm and happy. Not wanting to lose the feeling of the warm wind slipping through my hair, I rolled the window down as we rolled over the land back to our resort.
Day Five and our last two dives were here before we knew it. Returning to Scuba Iguana, we put on our scuba diving gear once more to head to Isla Seymour Punta and Isla Gordon.These dive spots are known for shark sightings and the moment we went under the water, five white-tipped sharks were found huddled in a cave. [Read More]
Our last full day had arrived and it was set to be a relaxing one with a yacht trip to neighboring Isla Bartolome . . . though I do use the term ‘relaxing’ loosely because, let’s face it, it was still me on a boat. Yet, this yacht was larger than our earlier speedboats and it also moved at a slower pace so I focused on convincing myself that I was fine, that I could handle this.
And I did, at first. 7:00 a.m. and the trip started off fun — I was taking pictures of beautiful sailboats as we moseyed out to sea.
About half an hour in, we passed foggy islands as the sky began to darken . . .
but the journey was pleasant overall. I sat tucked into the back corner of the yacht near the motor again to prevent seasickness and I was doing alright . . . until the smell of smoke drifted in the air an hour into the ride.
“I think something’s overheating,” Andy whispered in my ear as a feeling of dread began to consume me. Let’s be honest: If you read my blogs you know by now strange things happen to me. It’s as if I am so clumsy that my simple being affects things outside of myself so that weird, random shit just happens. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. It’s been that way my whole life. I’m not saying I’ve had a bad life either — I’m simply saying I am well attuned to this feeling of dread. And I say all of this to illustrate that when Andy informed me something had overheated, it came as no surprise when — a few minutes later — our guides appeared to apologize that one of two of our yacht’s engines had overheated and that they were calling for another boat to transfer us.
“Don’t worry,” they said, smiling as we heard the boat’s motor being turned off. “We will board a new boat that will come to take us to Bartolome while this yacht will be repaired so we can take it back.” Smiling still, they climbed the ladder to rise to where the captain sat, wishfully steering the boat.
“Oh God,” I moaned to Andy. “This is not going to be that easy. You know it won’t be that easy” and here I settled in for a long ride.
“L,” Andy looked at me as I leaned into him. “It is going to be easy because it is going to be just as they said — They have called for another boat, that boat will be here to pick us up, and we will go to the island for our tour. There is nothing wrong — Everything has been solved. There is no need to panic.”
“I’m not panicked,” I retorted. “I just want to know how long we will be stuck on this boat. Let’s take bets.”
“L. I’m not betting. It will take a small amount of time because they have just informed us that a boat will come. That’s it. There’s no need to bet. We won’t be stuck on a boat forever.”
Bless him. He still has his optimism despite knowing me for years.
“I’ll bet five hours,” I told him. Listen, it’s not that I’m negative and Andy is positive (though, true — we are). It is just that it broke my heart knowing he was living in a world of false hope — Seeing him trust and believe in something that wasn’t going to happen upset me. I needed to be the reality of the situation.
“It won’t be five hours,” he told me. “It damn well won’t be five hours. It will be thirty minutes max.” And with that, our conversation was over as I settled down for nap to bypass the slow progression of seasickness.
The minutes passed . . . Andy’s half an hour mark passed . . . then an hour . . . after hour . . . after still more hours passed until suddenly, the boat’s motor turned back on. I woke to find everyone looking at each other, confused and waiting. Slowly, the yacht moved forward, turning as it went, into a circle.
“What are we doing?” Andy asked, more to himself than to anyone. I was wondering the same. With one engine out, we were only able to go in circles.
And circles are what we did — in the middle of the ocean — to apparently pass time. Circling, circling, circling, contained on this small yacht — this is when I began to lose my mind. I looked around, hoping to see someone as desperate as I felt, someone who demanded information on our missing rescue boat, someone who was questioning why we were circling . . . but all I saw were calm people: A man joked loudly, “Tell people at home I love them” while others laughed; there was a camera and tripod set up as a French crew interviewed a scientist about sperm whales living deep below Galápagos’s waters. And there was Andy, who was excitedly shouting and pointing as he saw a large ray jump from the ocean’s surface. I felt the only sane one. Who the hell cared about the ray?! Or the television show on whales?! Or the jokes that were about to be truths. Why hadn’t anyone come yet? Why were we told hours ago a speedboat was on its way and there was still none?
“What time is it?” I asked Andy.
He checked his phone. “11:45.”
“You mean to tell me we have been on this boat for almost five hours?!” I announced. “Clearly something isn’t right! Clearly they are not telling us all there is to know! Where the hell is this rescue boat?! Why are we going in circles!? What the bloody hell are we doing!?” I’ve noticed when I get really pissed off the English word of ‘bloody’ is adopted; don’t ask me why.
“Calm down,” he told me. “There is a boat coming. They told us that already – They called for a boat.”
“That was HOURS ago!” I shrieked. “Why not call for the police?! Clearly we are stranded at sea and need help! Clearly there is no rescue boat coming!”
“L, the police?! Calm down. This is not an emergency.” His voice was passive, calm, though he seemed on the edge of being aggravated with me.
“Are you kidding?! It’s been FIVE HOURS!” I exploded. “At what time does this qualify as ‘an emergency’? At what point does more have to happen in order for it to become ‘an emergency’? What needs to go wrong for this to warrant calling for help?” I was furious, finding it ridiculous that everyone allowed this to continue. In my mind, I began writing a live shot on our story (seven years in the news business will do this to you), told from a reporter I imagined to be standing on a shore somewhere, analyzing debris from our wrecked yacht: “As you can see, the remnants of that Galápagonian yacht have now washed ashore. There’s still no word on how long the passengers drifted at sea before their deaths or even where their bodies are at this hour. And this all begs the question –- What went wrong that day? Why were warning signs ignored?”
Andy’s voice broke my thoughts: “A ray!” he shouted again next to me, followed by, “at least I think it was a ray. Maybe I’m delirious now.”
The truth was I was delirious too, imagining scenes of desperation, visions of not returning alive. In no specific order, I was seeing life vests around our heads as we forced into the ocean, one at a time, our yacht slowly going down in flames after the other engine overheated from the constant circling. I was seeing police helicopters hovering over us, dropping a net above our heads, and my fingers twisting into it as the chopper pulled me up . . .
Suddenly there was movement on deck and the two guides appeared before us again. “It appears we cannot find our rescue boat,” they announced with saddened expressions that seemed rehearsed. “We know that it left the port, but we have lost all communication with it. And with the port.” They paused as if that answered everything. “When we realized we could not communicate with the other boat, we did send out a request for help for another boat to come. That was before our communication went out. So we are still waiting for one of two boats,” they finalized then turned and went back up the ladder.
“That doesn’t answer anything!” I yelled as everyone sat quietly in their seats. “Lost communication?! Does anyone have record of where we are right now? Lost the first boat? And a second? Even if they were headed here, how will they know where we are without communication abilities?!” I was beyond myself as one of the crew members jumped aboard a small pool-sized inflated boat and revved the motor. It juttered awake. I watched as the little inflatable was turned towards the bow of our yacht where it then continued to nuzzle the yacht in a semi-straight path. “This — this — is how we are expected to get back to an island?!” The thought was both insane and a reality as our boat plodded ever-so-slowly forward until, several minutes in, the yacht’s motor cut off again.
“We’re out of gasoline,” I heard someone above say.
“This is fucking insane,” I announced, more in disbelief that this was actually happening.
And this is why I started my post saying we were lost at sea. This is why I said I was not speaking figuratively or dramatically either. I wasn’t exaggerating incidents or concocting a tale for story-telling purposes. We were honestly and truthfully lost at sea.
By this time, Andy was now fully aware that we were not making it to the island tour and that things were not going as planned so he went inside the covered area and sprawled his arms along a table . . . to go to sleep. I then was left to my own devices and began to notice strange details, such as one may do when death approaches. For instance, I became fixated on a deep cut on the Croatian woman’s leg – The laceration was a little above her ankle, beside her shinbone, and was about an inch in length. I saw it earlier when she first boarded our yacht because I remembered thinking how unsanitary it was that her cut was brimming with blood. Now I had a different fear: If we were to end up in the ocean, one drop from her wound would call forth the world’s population of sharks to devour us.
That lead my mind to more. And here’s how serious our situation became: I began examining people, determining who had the best chance at surviving this tragedy if we were picked off by sharks. There was the Croatian woman’s daughter — She had a good shot because she was old enough to be a strong swimmer and her legs were short so the sharks wouldn’t be able to eat her dangling limbs as easily. Then there was a teenage boy, tall and plump – He didn’t appear to know how to swim so he surely would be the first to go. And me – Where did I stand? My luck, I thought as spray from the ocean misted my face, is that I’ll be one of the last left floating . . .
Soon, a massive fishing boat appeared in the distance and I heard our little inflatable zoom ahead for it. Reaching its side, a person came to talk to our inflatable captain as the blow-up boat sloshed beside the ginormous one. Moments later, our little inflatable returned with large fuel canisters, which were emptied into our yacht so we could continue on our slow path to who-knew-where with the assistance of our inflatable. With no hope for rescue, I watched as the fishing boat disappeared from sight, leaving us with a view of endless ocean.
Needless to say, we were on that yacht for six and a half hours. A boat — some mystery boat — came to rescue us at 1:30 p.m. and take us back to the welcomed Santa Cruz. I was almost in tears of joy by the time we pulled up to the dock.
With Isla Bartolome gone, Andy and I later flopped onto our resort’s bed. “What would you like to do with our free day?” he whispered to me. We were both exhausted and beaten down and honestly, could have gone to sleep at 3:30 that afternoon . . . but it was our last full day.
“Let’s explore the island one last time,” I told him so out the door we went again.
The evening slowly approached as we made our way to the pier, hoping to see what Fredericko had mentioned earlier: sharks. Sure enough, numerous baby black-tipped sharks swam to the surface, brought there by fishing boats that pulled into the dock.
Making our way back to our resort, we settled in for dinner under a blood-red moon and drank glasses of wine, courtesy the company we booked through as an apology for our yacht experience.
(NOTE: We were also fully reimbursed for our missed island tour due to the yacht problems.)
Our day of departure had arrived but before we left, we had a final tour. Here, we were headed to the Charles Darwin Station to see the tortoise breeding center.
Dario was paired with us again on another tortoise private tour. Earlier he spoke of the differences in the El Chato Ranch Natural Reserve compared to the breeding center, and the differences were so apparent it was shocking.
The tortoises at the earlier wild reserve could roam in and out of the area, though they mostly chose to stay due to the environment. However, here the animals were contained in small quarters either by metal or stone fencing.
Because these were young, there were numerous tortoises placed in its enclosure; however, even the fully grown tortoises were kept close together too, which surprised me. Dario had stressed earlier how territorial the animals were so when I questioned if he imagined them to be happy in these conditions, he shrugged his shoulders without a smile. “They don’t have a choice so they have to live this way, correct?” I asked and he frowned and nodded.
Not only that, but looking at the tortoises’ enclosures the vegetation was significantly less. What was mostly visible was concrete structures and heavy rocks.
True, the tortoises naturally live on a volcanic island, but you’d have to be foolish to believe the vegetation (or lack there of) is identical to what is in their natural habitat. Without vegetation growing naturally, the tortoises at the breeding center are unable to eat whenever they please. This broke my heart because when we roamed the earlier reserve, I can attest that practically ever tortoise was bent beating or had vegetation hanging from its mouth. At the breeding center though, there were none eating and many of the tortoises had grown to learn humans bring food so when we approached they slowly made their way towards us, hoping to be fed.
Lastly, the tortoises here had no visible water. I questioned Dario about this, remembering one of the most happy scenes from the earlier reserve with tortoises in the pond. Here though I learned the tortoises are only given water once a month. He was not happy about the lack of water either but did point out that the animals can survive with little. I stood, horrified at the animals that congregated in concrete dry basins, waiting for water. The thought of not purposely filling their ‘water holes’ because they could survive with less was absurd.
Walking around the breeding center I found myself getting angry at Dario. “Why can’t you do something?” I asked him. “You know how happy the other giant tortoises were in their natural environment — Why can’t you make them change the environment here?”
But Dario would correct me: “These people,” he would say, fanning his arms around the enclosures, “are not me. They are not you. Weee know the tortoises is happy in the other environment — the natural environment. But people do this to the animals.”
And I understand what he is telling me. He means people — those who contain, study, and control animals; those playing God; those that go under the guise of ‘helping’ — those people are not him or me, the ones that see things differently.
So I tried to put myself into the other position. I tried to ask myself — over and over again — if these scientists, these people are actually helping? On one hand, is it better to have an animal live in these conditions to preserve its species? Is that an act to benefit the animal or is it one for the selfish human? But on the other hand, is it better to let animals live naturally and happily even though it will face extinction soon? Should people watch and stand idly by, knowing they could help? But what is ‘help’? Is there even an answer?
Overall, I don’t have much to say about the breeding center because I don’t know how I feel about it yet. I know what knowledge I was supposed to take away, such as on Charles Darwin. For instance, he was only twenty-two when he boarded his ship, not paid, to head out on a five year voyage. And I know I was supposed to learn about the different tortoises, which can be seen by analyzing their shells. Some have shells — thin and fragile — that appear to have melted around their bodies, while others have the stereotypical thicker, more circular shells. Also, other species have different neck lengths — some thin and long; others with barely visible stout necks. Lastly, their tails are different too — They can be long and almost leg-sized while others may be impossible to see.
I understand that identification is important because each species exists on a different Galápagonian island and each are at risk. Of the original fifteen species, for example, humans have already killed four so that only eleven remain. One of those species died relatively recently too — In 2012 many mourned the death of Lonesome George, who was the last of his kind. (His preserved corpse is at the breeding center too, by the way.) And another one alive has only fifty giant tortoises left in the world so it may follow Lonesome George’s footsteps soon too.
So I suppose I know the breeding center’s aim is to help. They do bred tortoises so that about 200 giants are born each year, such as these newly hatched.
This is incredible given the giant tortoise only lays around eight eggs a year, though in rare cases the maximum number recorded is twenty-two.
Also noteworthy is the center provides a safe place for the tortoises to grow. Here, they are as teenagers. (Andrew thinks he remembers Dario saying they do release the mature mating tortoises back into the wild with a goal of capturing different ones to mate; if this is true, none of the tortoises live forever in their confined home.)
Oh, and the breeding center helps other animals too — They breed these land iguanas, which are endemic to Galápagos.
So I do understand what the goal is: to help animals that, at the price of humanity, are about to be extinct. I just don’t know yet if this breeding center — or any breeding center — is the way to help . . .
With that thought continuing to trail me still, Andy and I were loaded back into a truck with our suitcases to head towards the dock where a boat took us from Santa Fe back towards Guayaquil.
It was here we saw glimpses of the birds we were hoping to see on missed tours, such as the blue-footed booby.
It was as if the Galápagos was reaching out to us in its final moments, showing us there was more wonder and beauty left to explore . . . but without time, we had to go. We had to board a plane and head home, watching the islands disappear as we went further into the sky . . .
* * *
When we returned home, I felt different. I felt unsure of myself, unsure of what I had seen, unsure if I had even been to the Islas Galápagos. It sounds odd to say it aloud, but I remember sitting at our dining room table one night and suddenly crying because I felt as if I had missed it all, as if I was there but did not pay attention, as if I did not truly see, as if my mind were elsewhere.
“I’m trying to convince myself that I did experience the Galápagos,” I told Andy. “I know I saw giant tortoises, sea lions, iguanas, blue-footed boobies, more — I know I saw it because I have pictures, but I don’t feel in my heart I actually saw it. I don’t remember it” and here I would cry again.
Maybe I don’t remember because I missed a large portion, I rationalized. I missed most of the sea lions after making it underwater late following issues. And I did have to cancel on over half of our dives, four in total missed, so I did not see marvels like the school of hammerheads. And our yacht did breakdown, keeping us from a exploring a different island. So yeah, I did miss much of what the Galápagos had to offer . . .
To cope with this realization, I tried to convince myself that the allure of the Galápagos was wrongly placed. It was simply a travel destination of numerous, merely one location in the world.
“That’s not true,” Andy said and I could see the sparkle of amazement still captured in his eyes.
“Convince me then,” I told him that night, again and again. And so he did.
“It is a place made legend due to its original, unique biodiversity. True you can see giant tortoises elsewhere, such as Africa, but those on the Galápagos are distinct ones endemic to that area. And yes, you can swim with sea lions elsewhere but will they be as friendly? Or will the risk of great white sharks — which are not present in the Galápagos — will those sharks make it too dangerous to dive? And maybe there are frigate birds elsewhere but you may have to travel far to see them. And L,” he said, “animals like the marine iguanas, the blue-footed boobies, more — L, those are endemic to the islands too; they are found there and only there. The Galápagos truly is extraordinary.”
And he is right.
The islands are rare to the fact that people do not have to travel the world to find these special animals — animals that are on the verge of extinction. Instead, people can go to one location — one spot so small it is a blip on a world map. And so while this is more a miracle, more a dream, it is also scary and sad.
The fact is the Galápagos is so precious and fragile that it sits in risk each day. And the largest threat is people.
Tourism has exploded, forcing the government to take measures to protect and conserve the islands, spanning from additional baggage screenings to purchasing Transit Cards and National Park Fees to spraying planes’ overhead bins with insecticide. That’s just heading there – There’s more upon arrival. But is it enough to ultimately save this rare archipelago?
No, of course it is not.
Before we left for the islands, people asked if we were required to get vaccinations. The answer is no but it did seem odd then – We were entering into a different type of world so it would seem expected to protect ourselves from it. However, we learned vaccines are not required because it is the people — the visitors — that bring bugs, seeds, and diseases to the Galápagos; it is the people that bring these threats so that if anything, the islands should be ‘vaccinated’ against tourists.
It here I will end this already long post: Only when we returned, when I wrote this did I realized Andy and I contributed to the downfall of the islands in a sense. True, we helped the people and their businesses which boosted the economy, but did we help the actual islands? The wildlife? No. If anything the act of writing this post encourages others to travel there, which further harms the area, and this is why I almost want to end saying simply, “Do not visit the Islas Galápagos.”
I tell Andy of how I am struggling to write this, of how it has taken me almost two months to write because I don’t actually want to share our adventures here. That’s because, in truth, I feel guilty and ashamed of going. This part of me wants to scare you from the area in an effort to cut down on tourism, in an effort to save the Galápagos from being wiped out forever. If I scare you enough, maybe you will realize it is your change – you staying away – that will allow the islands to grow stronger.
But Andy is talking to me now, telling me I am speaking as if the islands disappearing under people’s feet. He says conservation efforts will continue to improve because people will strive to protect the land and what is on it. In fact if anything, he tells me, as the animals are threatened and endangered, the necessity to keep them alive increases. So I should have faith . . .
I do feel appreciative that I had an opportunity to go and more importantly, that I was affected. I am grateful that I have a voice to spread the word about the importance to protect not only this land or any threatened, but all land. This part of me hopes, like Andy does, that efforts will keep improving so that others can go to the Islas Galápagos. With more people visiting, more people can be touched so more people can speak out and more change can happen.
So I guess I’ll leave you with this super hippie, super cliché bit because, simply put, I can think of no other way to say this: Be good and do good. Spread goodness.