March 2009/Day 1: I wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands, a remote archipelago of volcanic islands famed for their isolated unique wildlife that helped Darwin arrive at his theories of natural evolution.  My goal was to experience the wildlife and the wildness of the islands without the high expense and lack of independent travel that comes with traveling on a boat tour. In reality there are some islands that just can’t be visited independently unless you have your own boat. So, I researched the main islands that can be flown into to decide which one would have the best wildlife opportunities that I could still get to easily. I really wanted to see the flagship Galapagos Island species, giant tortoise but only in the wild and not in a sanctuary. I also wanted to do some good diving with megafauna such as hammerhead sharks. I discovered that I could do both of these by flying  to San Cristobal Island.

My friend Sterling, Evan and I stayed in San Cristobal Island for a week. We arranged a cheap hostel stay at the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and set off by taxi to La Loberia (sea lion colonies, land iguanas and marine iguana colonies along rocks), Cerro de las Tijeretas (frigatebird hill). The water was freezing but this didn’t stop us from snorkeling with sea lions, marine iguanas and giant sea turtles. I had one scary experience with a mother sea lion. When I snorkeled too close to her baby, she lunged at my crotch baring sharp teeth.  fearing the worst, I jumped out of the water with my hands protecting my crotch and at the last moment she veered away when I backed off.

Marine Iguana

Sealion

Evan swimming with a sea turtle

Frigate Bird during mating season puffing up a bright red throat sac

The town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno isn’t very big and is easy to explore on foot. There are a lot of Ecuadorian people living there hoping to capitalize on tourism and the government struggles to keep migration in check from the mainland in order to protect the sensitive environment of the Galapagos. The most interesting part of the town is watching how the sea lions, who have no fear of humans, completely dominate and take over. They are easily seen near the ocean, but they also move further inland in the evening and take over park benches and pretty much anything they want. They snore, grunt, smell, fart and act pretty foul but are mostly oblivious to curious humans. 

Day 2: On Day 2 we went diving and arranged for a boat dive with a local dive company to Kicker Rock, an inverted volcano mostly beneath the ocean well known for its megafauna including hammerhead sharks. First, we did an introductory dive to test our abilities with sea lions. 

 

Swimming with sea lions

The dive was only 30 feet deep, but it was chalk full of playful sea lions who buzzed us like torpedoes sometimes stopping to gaze at us in curiosity from only a meter away. The dive company never checked our scuba certifications. One of my friends had never dived before and was  not trained on how to dive. He lied about his certification and the dive company took him to Kicker Rock, a deep dive with lots of current. Needless to say, he had some buoyancy problems and one time when I was in pursuit of a Galapagos shark, I saw my buddy jet passed me from as he shot up to the surface unable to control his buoyancy. Luckily, he managed to avoid killing himself and we all had a great time diving. 

Sterling and I on the dive boat

Kicker Rock-an inverted volcano underwater

Evan, Sterling and I on the way to Kicker Rock

Kicker Rock did not disappoint. We did two dives there and it to this day is one of my favorite dives. There are better dives in the Galapagos like Gordon Rock, Darwin, but Kicker Rock is a great dive for megafauna. We saw many Galapagos sharks, sea turtles and bat rays. All encounters were very close. We also saw some hammerheads sharks that were above us on one occasion. 

 

Remote beach with no access via road or trail that we stopped at on the way back from Kicker Rock

Day 3: I arranged for a private boat tour to visit the remote parts of the island and to drop us off on a remote beach that we can hike to see wild Galapagos tortoises that were completely free to roam and not in enclosures. Almost all the places I could find on the island and on Santa Cruz for tortoises were small enclosures that seemed more like seeing them in a zoo than in the wild. I arranged a boat via a company out of Quito and they assured me we could visit the tortoises, even though other operators claimed we could not. The private boat was not cheap, and I recruited a few other travelers to share the cost with us.  We first stopped at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno -and then on to the remote northern wildlife rich Punta Pitt. Then on the return the captain explained I hope you had a good trip. I asked him if we were stopping at Galapaguera, where I had been promised by the company to be able to stop and see wild tortoises. I even had a printed email from them stating this would be a stop. When I asked the captain, he said no this is not possible. This stop is forbidden. This infuriated me but I realized I would not get far by arguing with the captain, so I convinced him to just take us to the beach near Galapaguera. Then when we arrived there, I told him we were promised a stop to see the tortoises and that we would hike to see them with or without his permission and proceeded to disembark from the boat into the ocean. The captain protested and explained this is against the rules of the park and we are going at our own risk. We called his bluff and set off hiking on the only trail we could see from the beach alone without a guide. I read the trail was approx. an hour long to the tortoises. It was a difficult hike along sharp lava rock, and it was extremely hot and exposed. I was worried we might get lost or not find the tortoises when all of a sudden, we came out into a small grove of trees and observed dozens of giant tortoises lazing around in clusters beneath the trees in their shade. Some of the tortoises were having sex. The tortoises were not shy, and we were able to get close to them, but we kept our distance to avoid bothering them. 

 

Punta Pitt

Red footed booty bird that we saw at Punta Pitt

More sea lions and fur seals at Punta Pitt

Fur seal at Punta Pitt

Beach at Galapaguera on the north of the island. The beach has no access by road and is deep in the national park. 

Hike over lava rock from the remote Galapaguera

A cluster of wild Galapagos Tortoises we encountered at Galapaguera

Me with a wild Galapagos Tortoises we encountered at Galapaguera

Mating tortoises at Galapaguera-many of the tortoises we saw were likely more than 150 years old since they don’t even reach sexual maturity until 70 years old. We watched in awe for at least 10 minutes while these two tortoises enagegd in relations with each. We were careful not to interrupt because evidently intercourse can last hours to all day before completed. the famel appeared very disinterested and continued to eat grass while the male grunted and groaned as his long neck portrudes from his shell.

We returned to the beach where our boat was waiting for us and boarded the boat. The captain was visibly angry and demanded we hurry up and board. In the distance we observed a boat approaching us. Once we were all on the boat, the approaching boat caught up with us and we realized it was national park service rangers in uniform. They asked us what we were doing, and we explained we were just looking at the beach. They asked us if we were on the beach, and we said no, and they advised us that visiting the beach is not allowed. It turns out the captain was right but the company that hired him lied to me. When we returned to the marina the captain through another surprise at us by asked for another few hundred dollars. I explained that my email states I paid a fixed price for the boat for a max set amount of people. The captain argued with me and demanded extra payment. He told me the price is per person and that we had to pay another 300 for the extra 3 people. I advised everyone to walk away and that this dispute was between the captain and the parent company. The captain was irate and threatened us with police action. We walked away. Afterall, I had an email showing we were in the right.

Day 4: The next morning Sterling and I departed to Quito by plane and when we arrived in Quito, I had a message from Evan and the other two travelers that they had been detained by police in Santa Cruz Island when they arrived by ferry. The police were holding them for non-payment of funds. But after an hour or so they were released because they explained our situation and the police deciding there wasn’t enough evidence to hold them. None the less I felt terrible that I had hired such a bad company and even though everything worked out for us, there was still a lot of stress and inconvenience. 

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