Seven go kayaking
The thrills of a paddling adventure around the Galapagos
REMEMBER when we were welcomed to Australia by the smell of insecticide as quarantine officers sprayed the plane?
They still do that when you land at San Cristobal airport on one of the 14 main islands of the Galapagos Archipelago, situated along the equator 972km west of continental Ecuador.
The Charles Darwin Foundation, guardians of this UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Ecuadorian government are serious about clearing the islands of all introduced species and rehabilitating those whose existence is threatened.
Our flight from Quito in mainland Ecuador has taken 90 minutes. Champi, our handsome, English- speaking local guide, meets us for the five-minute bus transfer to the dock and we are bowled over by our first sight of Nemo II, the 23m catamaran that is to be our home for the next eight days.
Sea lions are lounging around the jetty and playing in the shallows. Champi has to hustle us with our luggage into the panga, the small boat that delivers us to Nemo II. There are seven of us from Fremantle and five from the US and Canada, so we fill up the six twin and double ensuite cabins; there are also six crew members, including Champi.
Our first task is to prove to Champi that we can cope with the double blow-up kayaks in the rough seas if we should capsize. My husband and I are the first on our kayak and as we tip it over, someone yells ‘ ‘ Shark!’’ j ust in time for us to see the 2.5m fish circling around Nemo II and under our kayak.
It proves good motivation to show Champi how quickly we can right a kayak and get back on board. His attitude is that sharks have plenty to eat without bothering kayakers.
The Galapagos is all about the legacy of Charles Darwin and the influence that changes in environmental conditions have on the evolution of species.
As each of the archipelago’s 14 islands has its own micro-climate, there are significant differences between each. With Champi’s expert guidance, we are soon able to see distinctions in the beaks of the famous Darwin finches; depending on the food available on each island, the beaks evolve to enable the birds to eat either cactus leaves or seeds on the ground.
Because there have traditionally been few predators on the islands, the animals and birds are not afraid of humans. It is especially amazing to be so close to large seabirds. On the island of Espanola, we walk through the nesting grounds of the albatross and the blue-footed booby. We stand about 1m from nests where an albatross couple are fencing with their beaks in a mating ritual.
Blue-footed boobies are also engaging in their typical mating dance, whereby the male points his wings to the sky and the female responds by lifting each of her big blue-webbed feet in turn, as if she is dancing.
The birds seem to be oblivious to our presence.
Onthe beaches, there are many sea- lion colonies. The calmer coves shelter the mothers and pups and a dominant bull. The wilder and more exposed areas house the bachelor colonies where the males gather and build up their strength to challenge a bull for his colony. Amid the sea lions are the marine iguanas; both species loll all over each other, but when they take to the water they are agile and quick.
While we are snorkelling, sea lions swim alongside and iguanas move past us as they go up and down to feed on the algae on the rocks on the ocean floor.
We swim with giant manta rays 3m in diameter.
One day we are lucky enough to see blue-footed boobies diving for fish and zooming past us into the water like flying arrows.
There are always many brightly coloured reef fish around whenever we are close to shore — it feels as if we are swimming in an aquarium.
It is August and the water
is 16C; even with a wetsuit, it is pretty challenging. So, if snorkelling is your thing, consider January or February, when the water temperature can be 28C. But remember you won’t get to see nesting birds in the hotter weather.
One of the signature animals of the Galapagos is the giant tortoise. When Darwin arrived, the tortoises were on many of the islands and each had a different carapace, depending on the food they ate. Unfortunately for tortoises, the whalers and pirates discovered they were easy pickings — and a very nice change from ship biscuits and rancid meat. Thousands of tortoises were taken and kept in the holds of ships for up to a year to provide fresh meat.
On the islands where tortoises lived near the coast, they were soon wiped out and these species have become extinct.
On islands where they lived in the mountains, it was much more difficult to carry a 250kg tortoise to a ship and hence they have survived. Tortoises can now be seen in the wild only on the island of Santa Cruz, where they live far from the coast. They are truly wonderful, ambling at a slow but steady pace, and we marvel at their size.
As well as capturing tortoises, in 1793 whalers set up a barrel on the island of Floreana to serve as a mailbox. It was not unusual for whalers to be away for five to 12 years; they dropped off letters in this barrel which would then be taken back to port by others, and ultimately delivered to loved ones. This barrel system is still in operation, so we have a fun afternoon dropping off postcards for our grandchildren in the hope they may be delivered one day, just as they were so long ago.
But most of all we are here to kayak. Generally there is a pretty strong swell and often conditions are rough; each of us needs, at least once, to prove our skill in righting a capsized kayak. We especially enjoy the days when we kayak in the late afternoon alongside cliffs and then out into the ocean and onwards to a bay where Nemo II is moored for the night.
We have great times going into high caves in the rocks and bat- tling the surf to get into little coves. We often see turtles swimming beside us and myriad seabirds overhead.
We spot sea lions in hard-toreach places where they scramble straight down a cliff.
And the best thing about afternoon trips is that when we get back on board, night is falling and it is time to head to another island, sipping champagne and admiring the sunset from the top deck.
We love our boat and turn our noses up at the larger vessels we see from time to time with their crowds of passengers — well, 30 seems like a crowd when we are only seven Australians and five new friends.
A marine iguana stops to sunbathe on volcanic stones on the shores of San Cristobal, one of the largest islands of the Galapagos Archipelago
Nemo II accommodates 12 passengers in six twin and double ensuite cabins
A giant tortoise on the island of Santa Cruz