The day began with another early wake-up call, so early the hotel arranged for the breakfast
staff to set up earlier than usual just to serve us. After rushing through breakfast we boarded the bus with our limited one
checked bag and a carry on. The Galápagos requirements only allow one bag going, but when returning a second bag is acceptable -
of course they want you to buy souvenirs to take back. Unfortunately, packing in the snorkeling gear (wetsuit, snorkel, fins and
mask) left little room for other items such as clothes, but I was able to take enough to get me through the seven nights on board
When we arrived at the airport a somewhat chaotic mess ensued with 20 of us traveling in the group handing over our bags and
passports to our guide whom secured our boarding passes and lined us up for checking the bags and getting through security. But
once aboard the Aerogal plane we could catch a few more minutes of sleep before we landed in the Galápagos. We had a 45 minute
stopover in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city located on the Pacific coast, to pick up more excited travelers on their way to the
enchanted islands. We were finally on our last leg to beginning our adventure!
We landed on Baltra Island, home of a former US air base strategically located to defend the Panama Canal during World War II,
because the airport on San Cristobal Island was under construction.
The airport located on what otherwise seemed like a deserted island was a rickety structure without walls, much less boarding
gates, where we exited the plane via a stairway onto the tarmac. From there we entered into the make-shift structure where
inspectors checked us and our luggage to ensure no foreign life forms other than us as tourists were entering onto the islands.
Although we had been instructed not to take anything from the island, because everything is to be left as natural as possible
and is wholly protected under Ecuador's laws, Dr. Scott Seville, a parasitologist from the University of Wyoming and co-instructor
on the trip, spotted feces on the tarmac and proceeded to collect it for later study. He was quickly forced to put it back by one
of the authorities at the airport. When they said we could not take anything, they meant ANYTHING!
When we were cleared and our luggage was loaded onto a bus, we boarded and were whisked away to a small inlet, known as Punta
del Norte (North Point) where our boat, the Letty, awaited ready to serve as our home and transport throughout the archipelago for
the next eight days and seven nights. On the short drive to the dock I couldn't help but wonder where the wildlife was. All I
could see was a desolate landscape consisting primarily of tall
cacti (Opuntia echios)
growing from barren red soil.
Wow, the reality of our location was starting to settle in - pure excitement!
Orientation on the Letty
Finally, it was our group's turn to board the pangas and make our way to the Letty. As
we lined up and donned our life vests we were instructed on how to get aboard the panga safely by mutually clutching the arm of
the navigator just below the elbow so as to steady ourselves and avoid falling into the water. Each of the two pangas accommodated
a navigator, a naturalist and 10 passengers seated five on each side. Once we were all loaded into the panga the navigator revved
up the small outboard motor and whisked us away to the Letty, anchored in the middle of the bay. There we were warmly welcomed
aboard, again utilizing the safe arm clutching technique avoiding any unfortunate mishaps.
Upon boarding we were immediately led to the main congregation area, or briefing room in the bow (front) of the boat sitting
adjacent to the restaurant-like booths of the dining room. This area had wood-paneled walls with a couch spanning the full
perimeter of the room where we all comfortably sat awaiting the briefing by our naturalists. The room contained a magazine/book
rack and a television hooked up with a DVD player complete with a small library of DVDs for our entertainment, as if seeing the
sites was not entertainment enough.
Beside the dining area, separated by a set of stairs leading to the next deck, was a self-service stocked bar that operated on
the honor system requiring each person to manage their own tab, paying for it at the end of the voyage.
As we settled in for the briefing we were served some cool punch to counter our thirst from waiting in the hot equatorial sun
followed by introductions to our two naturalist guides, Harry and Pepé. Pepé was feeling a little under the weather so Harry took
the lead and provided us rules of the boat and information regarding what to expect while we toured the paradise known as the
The rules seemed somewhat strange in some respects for us Americans accustomed to living in the land of plenty, especially the
one requiring throwing toilet paper in the trash bin versus simply flushing. Due to the importance of the natural state of the
Galápagos and its precious treasures of life, conservation is taken very seriously and flushing paper is a preventative measure
to reduce waste in the environment.
Other rules included the washing off of sand and any potentially tag-a-along organisms with every boarding after trekking on an
island to prevent foreign introductions of life forms into environments we would visit afterwards.
We were informed of the difference in wet and dry landings and were foretold that an announcement would precede each landing so
that we were appropriately dressed for each departure. Last, but not least, the rules of safety were explained including what to
do if the emergency alarm sounded - we were to go to the upper sun deck and await for further instruction - followed by the
announcement that there would be a practice drill directly after the briefing.
Harry continued with a quick orientation of the yacht gesturing down the stairs to the Iguana deck where four rooms were located
in the bow where those subject to sea sickness would be best off choosing a room. The crew's quarters were also located on the
iguana deck in the stern (back).
Motioning up the stairs he pointed to the dolphin deck where four more guest rooms were located in the center flanked by the
rear observation deck where we boarded and wet suits were hanging and available for use. Immediately in front of the guest rooms
on the dolphin deck were the bridge and another observation deck positioned in the foremost area of the bow.
The deck on which we were all gathered was known as the booby deck where the galley (kitchen) was located just behind the dining
room and another two guest rooms behind it. Finally, on the very top of the yacht was the sun deck, the largest observation deck,
with lounge chairs for our comfort.
Now that the housekeeping had been addressed it was time for some details of the day's events. Pepé grabbed a framed map of the
Galápagos archipelago and hung it in the stairway entrance. Harry went on to point out our first destination, Mosquera Island
lying just to the North of Baltra spanning, but not closing, the gap between Baltra and North Seymour Islands. We were informed
it would be a dry landing and instructed to be careful as we would be walking amongst a population of sea lions of which are the
most dangerous animal in the Galápagos in regard to human attacks. The bull sea lions were quite large and very territorial and
are prone to patrol their beaches attacking intruders that they deem threatening.
In addition to the map a white board hung on the front side of the bar. Harry jotted down the details of the day's itinerary
and informed us that each evening we would have a briefing on the next day's details, which would be available for us on this white
To wrap up the orientation brief we received a quick reminder from Harry to secure our paper tickets. We had been warned prior
to leaving Quito not to lose our paper tickets or we would be subject to buying another in order to return. I reached for mine and
realized I would be the one on this trip to have lost it. How embarrassing! I suppose I left it on the plane but regardless I did
not have it. I wasn't alone in the lost department though. Janine, a biology student, had had her luggage lost on the flight into
Quito albeit through no fault of her own. She had been forced to wear the "clothes on her back" for the past couple of days hoping
that the airline would find and deliver her bags.
Our boat was in contact with the other employees of the touring company, EcoVentura, who were working in the background to get
her bags before we departed Baltra. Due to the logistics of the trip, once we departed she would be out of luck. Her bags had
been located and were flown in on the plane arriving after our flight, so Harry let us know we would be delayed from starting our
adventure hoping the bags would arrive in time. Of course, everyone was sympathetic to the situation and selflessly obliged the
postponement. And, as luck would have it, the bags did indeed arrive after a long while giving Janine a sigh of relief and a fresh
change of clothes.
During the delay we were introduced to the 11 crew members from the captain to the meal server and then received our room
assignments and proceeded to them where our bags were waiting. As we were unpacking and settling into our rooms the alarm sounded
and everyone calmly headed for the sun deck. The drill was successful and we received accolades from the crew. While everyone
was gathered on the sun deck it was apparent we were all restless and anxious to get the adventure underway.
The Adventure Begins
When Janine's bags had arrived the engines were ignited, the anchor retracted and the Letty
was on the move, destination Mosquera Island. I went back up to the sun deck to take it all in and snap a few shots. The weather
had been quite warm and unsuspectingly dry reminding me of a hot summer day back in Denver. This was quite the contrary to my
expectation of heavy humidity given that the islands consisted of such a small land mass in the middle of the Pacific Ocean 1,000
km (600 mi) from the South American continent. But now in motion, the salty breeze racing across the sun deck bringing with it
such welcome relief from the heat, suddenly I felt as if I had been whisked away into a surreal yet amazing paradise.
In pursuit was a
great frigatebird (Fregata minor)
taking advantage of the trail winds created by the Letty helping her to
conserve energy on her way to the next land mass. Off in the distance to our port side (left) sat the tiny island of Daphne Minor
famous for the evolutionary studies of Darwin's finches conducted by the Grants, a husband and wife scientific research team. It
was quite a thrill to see the island in person really propelling the trip on to a great start.
The Grant's decades of research has provided staggering evidence in favor of Darwinian evolution theory showing that a
devastating drought resulted with forces of natural selection selecting for those finches with larger beaks. The explanation
behind these results involve the fact that small seeds, more plentiful in wetter periods, were consumed relatively rapidly by
finches with both large and small beaks leaving larger seeds that were edible only by the large-beaked birds. The small-beaked
birds found themselves in a desperate scenario, in which many died due to starvation, leaving mostly large-beaked birds to
reproduce the new generation that would ultimately possess beaks of greater average size. Furthermore, following a year witnessing
nine months without a break in rain, the average beak of the finches decreased lending evidence of small-beaked birds thriving when
the smaller seeds were more plentiful and the large-beaked birds selected against.
While taking it all in, the boat's engines quieted and the breeze subsided as we slowed to
an eventual halt. Before us was a white sandy beach seemingly floating out in the middle of the ocean dotted with black lava rocks
and numerous sea lions. The crew lowered the pangas into the water while we put on our life vests and lined up single file to
We were quickly ferried to the beach that is Mosquera Island and disembarked to stroll across the desert-like landscape with the
towering cliffs of Baltra to the south and the up sloping terrain of North Seymour to the north. It appeared as if we had landed
on a distant planet reminding me of scenes from movies such as "Star Trek" and "Planet of the Apes," or more aptly, planet of the
Both groups filed onto the beach, cameras in tow, absorbing the experience of being in a place so foreign to our experience. I
think many were a little hesitant facing a large population of sizeable mammals lying about the beach like land mines. But people
started moving forward ready to explore and photograph this amazing island.
Just as we got underway we were halted by the sight of a very large bull charging toward us in a comical Charlie Chaplin-like gait.
Every one of us froze in our tracks not knowing whether to run or laugh. We came to our senses and began to scatter, our instincts
telling us to turn opposite and run back toward the pangas. Lucky for us we had knowledgeable guides screaming at us to run "out"
of his way and not from him. Apparently these large blubber-filled animals were not adept at maneuvering to the side while charging,
causing them to charge in a straight line.
With the bull sea lion now behind us at the water's edge we were cleared to continue our exploration of the island with some
extra vigilance regarding the local residents. The island simply did not seem possible in its structure. It was literally like a
beach in open water lacking any terrestrial depth. Mosquera is roughly the length of a football field but only half the width,
just a sliver of an island still standing above water. It is the result of being an older, sinking island in the central part of
Due to the movement of the Earth's crust, the Nazca plate containing the islands is slowly moving toward and under the
continental shelf of South America, gradually pulling the islands down below the water's surface as they inch eastward. It was
quite surreal leading me to wonder where all the white sand comes from in an environment of predominantly jet black lava rocks and
how it can remain a viable island and not erode away in rough seas.
The Inhabitants of Mosquera
The sea lion is by far the largest animal and one of the few mammals endemic to the
Galápagos Islands, the others being the
red and hoary bats (Lasiurus brachyotis and cinereus)
and seven species of
Galápagos rice rats (Aegialomys galapagoensis).
On Mosquera they seemed to be the primary residents and probably the only mammal on this small island. Guarding the
beaches and protecting large numbers of females (up to 30) and their young were a few very large bull males weighing up to 250 kg
(550 lbs). The males are very territorial and quite aggressive in protecting their territory as we experienced first-hand.
While walking along the length of Mosquera it was evident the males ruled the land while mothers were left to lazily sunbathe
and feed their pups in that all so familiar mammalian style of suckling them from one of four teats. The breeding season was
underway, ranging from May through January, amid many newborn pups having likely been born a month or so earlier (nine month
gestation period) actively being nursed by their mothers. Going hand-in-hand with witnessing the newest generation of sea lions
in this large colony, there was the inevitable sign of life's end, a carcass lying across the white sand almost fully recycled back
into the fold of life.
In addition to the dominate sea lions, there were numerous, bright red
sally lightfoot crabs (Grapsus grapsus)
swarming the dark
black backdrop of the lava rocks edging the sandy island. Unlike the playful and curious sea lions, the crabs were a bit more
intimidated by human trespassers opting to slip off into the shadows in-between the rocks upon our approach. Amongst the many red
crabs were countless smaller, black crabs that turned out to be the camouflaged juvenile stage of the sally lightfoots.
The final inhabitant I spotted on this island was the marine iguana albeit not seemingly in large numbers. I saw a few of these
spiny reptiles warming their blood while resting upon the heat-absorbing black lava rocks. Given that it was getting late into the
afternoon some of them may have been out in the ocean feeding on
their primary food source. The marine iguana here in the Galápagos is the only species of iguana on the planet to evolve a reliance on the
sea unlike their terrestrial cousins in South America.
While walking down the center ridge of Mosquera one of these slow moving iguanas was making its way across the sand to the
opposite side. In its wake was a slithering trail in the sand with foot prints alternating one either side every foot or so.
When I approached to photograph this exquisite creature he paused momentarily, turned his head as if to size me up, and then
without further hesitation continued on his journey. Although we had been told in class, in our text book and on all the
documentaries we viewed that the animals in the Galápagos were not afraid of humans; it was still strange to experience such
indifference for the first time.
Off of the northeast shore of Mosquera, with North Seymour Island serving as a backdrop, I saw two blue-footed boobies flying
around. I did not see any nesting boobies on Mosquera so I assume this pair resided on a nearby island. Regardless, I snapped a
few photos of them in flight as they began diving into the ocean in an attempt to catch their evening meal. The way in which these
birds dive is remarkable. When they spot their prey they do a quick nose dive bringing their wings close into their bodies forming
the shape of a dart just as they hit the water. The booby possesses air pockets in their skull to cushion their brain upon impact
and create only a slight splash any Olympic diver would envy.
Consequences of a Late Start
We had been on Mosquera for probably an hour-and-a-half when Harry and Pepé began motioning
for us to return to the pangas for the short ride back to the Letty. I boarded the second panga as the first one made its way back
to the boat. Because we had a late start we ended up experiencing difficulty getting our panga away from the island and into
As the day was nearing its end the tide had begun to wane exposing much more of the lava rock around the perimeter of the island
and creating a shallow trap for our panga. The outboard motor was not so useful in the rocky terrain and the paddles proved
inefficient as well given that the panga kept bottoming out on the rocks. But after struggling for a good twenty minutes, our
navigator with the aid of the first panga returning to help, we eventually made our way into the deeper water and back to the
Upon returning to the Letty we were greeted with snacks and cold soda, a welcome treat before our first dinner. We enjoyed a
few minutes of relaxation prior to convening in the dining room on the booby deck. For dinner Ricky Martin, our server, offered a
choice of fish or chicken of which I chose the fish. The entrée featured a Mahi mahi steak with sides of potatoes and broccoli.
The meal was very tasty and satisfying but was not enough to mute the massive headache I felt coming on. With my good game face
on I suffered through the briefing of details for our next day's events. We would be traveling through the night 55 nautical miles
(6,076 ft, 1/8 longer than the standard 5,280 ft of a standard mile) to our destination of Genovesa Island, the bird capitol.
Immediately after the briefing, my headache not subsiding and likely caused by the counter reaction to my yellow fever inoculation,
I decided to turn in and get some sleep. I made my way up to the dolphin deck, entered my room and climbed into bed quickly fading
into a deep sleep aided by the rocking motion of the boat.