Galapagos is still THE dream destination of our planet, and not just for biologists. We were curious to see what this paradise looked like today.
In the kingdom of the Darwin finks
I will never forget a scene that occurred upon our arrival at the small airport of Baltra/Galapagos: Klaus (yes, he was along this time) had tears in his eyes when he stepped upon the ground of Galapagos for the first time in his life after disembarking from the plane. "My lifelong dream of being on Galapagos one day has come true!" Most of us felt the same way he did. Due to their history and Darwin, the islands illicit extreme emotions. This natural paradise must shoulder a burden of more than 100,000 visitors per year, a figure which is on the rise. Despite the fact that Galapagos is pursuing a strategy to the opposite effect: Less visitors, but the chosen few must pay a high price. $ 100 extra upon arrival for entering the Galapagos National Park, and $ 36 when leaving the island. A national licensed guide MUST accompany every hike.
Diving cruises are ALWAYS 7 days/6 nights and cost around € 3,000, excluding flights. As a result, Galapagos is an expensive and exclusive travel destination, which in retrospect, though, was worth every cent. On the way to the hotel already we stopped to watch the giant Galapagos tortoises in the biotope. The giant animals were feeding on lush grass with relish and were engaging in courtship. We learned how loud the ecstatic moaning of mating tortoises can be! This was also the site of our first encounter with the famous Darwin's finches. Anyone taking a closer look at the shape of the birds' beaks was able to see Darwin's thoughts about the theory of evolution hopping around before their very eyes.
We had selected Hotel Silberstein on Santa Cruz Island (www.hotelsilberstein.com), which we can recommend with no reservations. Our divers went diving with the Scuba-Iguana dive centre (www.scubaiguana.com) located right in Puerto Ayora near the Darwin Center. The base is managed very professionally and owned by Mathias Espinosa, who has also successfully guided large BBC camera teams on Galapagos.
The first view under water
Our team had to divide up into snorklers and divers once more, unfortunately. The snorklers had more activities on land in their program, which the divers often envied them for, though. The divers, in turn, wanted to visit different places offering a maximum diversity of fauna. Now, of course, when you're on Galapagos, you can't simply get up in the morning and decide where you want to go. No, you must have a fixed tour program. We had our first diving day on Thursday, and divers always go to Cousins & Bartolome off the shore of Santiago on Thursdays. The maximum diving time is always limited to 60 minutes.
The first view under water is always the most exciting one. Visibility was not very clear, with some green colouration (plankton), and the density of fish was phenomenal. Gigantic swarms of razor surgeonfish, also known as yellowtail surgeonfish (Prionurus laticlavius), passed over the cliffs. There were not many corals, even though the islands are right on the equator. But the cold Humboldt Current, also known as the Peru Current, from the Antarctic brings cold water which meets the warm water of the Equatorial Current at the islands. This produces an unbelievable wealth of nutrients, which leads to a high density of plankton and an enormous density of fish as a result. The limited clarity/visibility under water is a drawback. A group of golden cownose rays, also known as Pacific cownose rays (Rhinoptera steindachneri), swam past us. Five whitetip reef sharks were relaxing on the bottom in front of us. Everyone was trying to take pictures that were as clear as possible without too many visible suspended particles. During the break between dives, we checked the water parameters: 27 °C, 47.6 mS/cm, pH 8.5, KH 6 ° dKH, Ca 360 mg/l, Mg 1140 mg/l (GPS data: 0°27´52"S / 90°18´32"W).
Our second diving day took us to Seymour, approx. 20 minutes by boat from our starting point in the northern part of Santa Cruz. On both dives, we were finally able to see the beautiful Passer angelfish, also known as the king angelfish (Holocanthus passer), a few large stingrays and many puffer fish. A large blacktip shark appeared, circled us curiously three times and then disappeared. We were also able to look at some beautiful coral formations. At the end of our dive, while waiting for the boat at the surface, some Pacific manta rays (Manta hamiltoni) swam by and circled us for several minutes. Wow – we were delighted!
The sharks were awesome
Unfortunately, we still hadn't seen any hammerhead sharks, which are normally abundant in this region. Therefore, the divers changed their plans for the final day. They took the opportunity to go to the Gordon Rocks dive site, which offers the best opportunities for spotting hammerhead sharks besides the small remote islands of Wolf and Darwin, which, though, can only be reached by diving cruise ships. Both of the dive masters warned us: The current can be extreme. There are downcurrents that pull you downwards and there are washing machine or whirlpool effects, which whirl you around in a circle. It was with these nice prospects that we began our two final dives, and our last chance to see some hammerhead sharks. Contrary to expectations, there was no current at all when we set out. We dove to a depth of 10 m along a cliff and watched some sea lions hunting. The animals exhibited no fear of us divers and "sat down" in the cliffs right in front of us to watch their prey. Then they would suddenly dive and snag the individual fish they had isolated from the swarm. The picture of a sea lion in the middle of a gigantic swarm of fish against the sun was unforgettable. But weren't we here to see some hammerhead sharks? And then, finally: There was the first hammerhead "standing" on the reef at a depth of about 25 m. A large female with a body length of about 3 m was getting cleaned by some cleaner fish.
Since no "normal" cleaner fish (Labroides dimidiatus) live here, this ecological niche has been filled by two other fish species. We saw both threebanded butterfly fish (Chaetodon humeralis) and angelfish (H. passer) cleaning other fish. Heiko tried to swim closer to the hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini) because of the short range of visibility. But when he was still 3 m away, the hammerhead shark interrupted the cleaning session and moved out of sight. But never mind, it was only the first hammerhead! Next, we tried to get to the outer side of the Gordon Rocks. We fought our way against the current centimetre by centimetre by holding on to the rocks and moving forward bit by bit. The current was so strong, it almost pulled our diving masks off of our faces. Honest! The current was the strongest that even our most experienced divers had ever experienced. The divers with the cameras had extra fun, because they had only one free hand to hold on to the rocks. We stayed in the midst of this tugging current for almost 15 minutes to see if we could spot some more sharks. We did see three more hammerhead sharks, but none of them came close enough for any of the divers to take a decent picture. The physical exertion due to the current consumed a fair amount of air, so that this dive lasted only 45 minutes. Everyone was happy just the same, so taking farewell wasn't so difficult.
Marine iguanas every step of the way
Of course, everyone wanted to see the famous Galapagos lizards. Well, our days were all completely filled, so the only time we had was what was left after we returned from diving. After our return to the hotel at 16:00, we left again immediately in search of the animals. We didn't have to search for long, because there were some iguanas running around on the roads and in the harbour. We found many marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) engaged in territorial battles on a section of the coastline below the Darwin Station.
On the way through the dunes already, we had to take care not to step on the animals. Their colour and bizarre shape were surprisingly similar to the surrounding lava rocks. The lizards showed no fear and willingly let us photograph them from just a few centimetres distance. Our group of snorkelers was lucky – they even got to watch marine iguanas swimming. The contrast to the Sally Lightfoot crabs, also known as red rock crabs (Grapsus grapsus), that were scrambling on the rocks was especially beautiful. They only live on Galapagos and two small islands in the Atlantic. Their crass colouration is rather odd on the dark rocks. Only the young animals are still a dark colour.
A sandy beach to the horizon – the end of our journey
On the last afternoon, there were still a few hours before sundown to walk to the longest sandy beach of the islands, Tortuga Bay. A walk of almost 3 km through a beautiful dune landscape takes you to the dream beach. As the name Tortuga (Span. turtle) says, the green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) lay their eggs here, but not at the time we were there. They lay them in January instead.
The marine iguanas appear like foreign bodies on the white sandy beach. They run around the beach in the hot sun, seemingly aimlessly. The tourists running around there (likewise, seemingly aimlessly) didn't seem to bother them the least. In the back part of the beach, there is a small peninsula, behind which there is a small bay lined by mangroves. Swimming is permitted here. Guards watch to make sure that noone hangs their clothes on the branches of the trees or violates any other rules. Even if regulations can be annoying, they are urgently necessary here so that the natural paradise of Galapagos can continue to exist.
A visit to two enormous craters (Los Gemelos twin craters) rounded off our 2012 JBL Expedition. For a period of 17 days, we had acquired knowledge about aquarium and terrarium dwellers, experienced untouched nature and had been able to visit fascinating places. Thousands of pictures had to be viewed and organised afterwards. In addition, all of the recorded data and measured values had to be entered into tables. And then, of course, there is that old principle: After the expedition is before the expedition. Because Vietnam awaits us in 2013. Will you be among the lucky ones? You will find the application/registration form on the first page of the Vietnam Workshop announcement.