We got up early to head down to the dock in Puerto Ayora. A boat would be picking us up to take us to Isabela, the big island of the Galapagos. We had a long list of animals we wanted to see here. Penguins, sea turtles, flamingos and sea lions all called this island home. I can’t think of any other place that has all of these animals together, so this would be a once in a lifetime experience.
We crammed into the boat and the seats began to fill up quickly. I was invited to the upper deck to sit with the driver and a few of his friends. From here, I would be able to get a front row seat to all the action. The boat ride was about two hours long, and most of that time was spent not being in view of any land. For the most part, it felt like we were in the open ocean. That’s when I realized how remote the Galapagos were. I noticed two fins off the starboard bow. “Que es eso?” I said. “Tiburón” the captain said. Still seeing that I was confused, he put his hand on his head to pretend he was a shark. I thought this was so funny. This was actually the first big shark I had seen in the wild. I began to see a few more as we started getting farther away from shore. I ended up seeing a few dozen hammerhead and Galapagos sharks on that trip, from a safe distance of course. Maybe some day I would swim with them, but for now I was satisfied just seeing them from afar. We were cruising along the water, occasionally seeing one of the smaller islands of the Galapagos appear in the distance. All of a sudden, the captain jerked the steering wheel to the left. Thinking quickly, I peered over the starboard bow to see what he was swerving to avoid. Out of the blue, I see this massive manta ray coming up to the surface with his mouth wide open. I never thought I would get to see a manta ray in the Galapagos, but there it was right in front of me. I thought it was really cool that the captain knew how to spot these guys and steer clear of them. There is a great respect for wildlife in the Galapagos.
After coming into the harbor, we got onto a smaller boat to go the rest of the way to shore. These waters are so full of life. There were so many sea turtles, fish and rays that the driver was basically going half speed the entire time so he wouldn’t hit anything. When we got to shore the sea lions had taken over the beach! There were some sleeping on the benches and even on the kayaks! I still to this day don’t understand how or why the sea lion climbed up onto these kayaks to sleep. It couldn’t have been that much more comfortable than the ground and even if it was how could he get up here? Their climbing ability must be non-existent. If just walking a few feet is a chore, how could they climb up the slippery plastic boats? Did someone put him up there? My best guess is that he somehow used the low tree branch to get up their but even that would require a remarkable amount of critical thinking and dexterity.
It was very clear that the sea lions owned this beach. There was no place to sit because they had taken over all the benches. You couldn’t take out the kayaks until the sea lion was done with his nap. For once, the animals get to do what they want and we have to plan around it. I like that!
As tempting as it was, we couldn’t just sit around and take pictures of sea lions all day, we had a lot to see and our boat was leaving at 5:00 pm with or without us. One of the main things we were here to see was the flamingos. People had said that they were very rare and if we wanted to try and see them we could but there would be no guarantees. We headed into the small village of Puerto Villamil. This was the largest village on the island, but it was still only home to about 2,000 people. The entire town was deathly quiet. The sandy streets were completely empty, and we had to really search hard to find a place to stop for breakfast. We talked with the owner of the café about the flamingos and she told us the best place to look for them. Laguna Salinas was a small marsh just north of Puerto Villamil. There was a boardwalk that takes you through the lake, and they said that sometimes you can see flamingos. After finishing our breakfast, we ventured over to the entrance of the boardwalk only to find that it was blocked by a gang of marine iguanas! This was the only time I had to break the 5 foot rule. I climbed on the railings of the boardwalk and got as far away from them as I could. None of them left the spot they were in so I figured this was okay.
After walking a few hundred feet, scanning the water for the famous pink birds, we began to lower our expectations. Maybe we wouldn’t get to see any on this trip. Everyone we had talked to about this place downplayed it. They said that flamingos were very rare and most people don’t see them. Right as we got around the next corner, there they were! We first saw one flamingo in the distance, but there turned out to be two. They are usually found in even numbers, presumably because they are mating pairs. We saw about 14 on this short little walk. They were just wading around in the marsh with their beaks in the water, frantically sifting through the water for food. This was yet another animal I had no expectation of seeing on this trip. What a treat!
The boardwalk was actually a really cool hike on its own even if there weren’t any flamingos. In the Galapagos, there are so few people that the moment you venture away from the main town, you are pretty much on your own. We crossed paths with a few people, but for the most part it was just us and nature. The boardwalk eventually led us to a forest and after walking through the forest we got to a large building, which was the tortoise reserve of Isabela. We didn’t book a tour of this place because we had so much else to see, but it seems like a pretty cool spot. They have the giant Galapagos tortoises here but it is also a nursery for little baby tortoises.
We headed back through the boardwalk and passed the same group of iguanas, with little evidence that they had moved at all. We wanted to hurry back to make it in time to see the penguins. The Galapagos penguins are perhaps one of the more elusive animals on the islands. They are only found in specific spots that are safe for them to nest, and most of these spots are pretty inaccessible to humans. Our best bet was Islote Las Tintereras. This was an outcropping of small rocky islands around the main port of Isabela. The only way to really get around here was by kayak. Luckily for us, the sea lion had finished with his nap so we could finally use the kayaks. There was so much going on in the water that I would occasionally stick my GoPro in the water just to see what I could find. I ended up seeing a few rays, a puffer fish and 2 or 3 turtles! On any other day, seeing these animals would’ve been the highlight, but not today. Our highlight was something much cooler. After paddling into a few of the inlets and searching for the penguins, we finally encountered a small group of about 6 of them. It was so amazing to see these birds. I had never seen penguins in the wild before, or from this close of a distance. We stayed on our kayak and watched them swim around. Their feathers are so dense they just look like stuffed animals. One of them was swimming on his back while he was cleaning his feathers. This was so cute! It was like he was taking a little bath. The coolest part was seeing them hop from the rocks into the water. These penguins are world famous for being the only penguins north of the equator. We were about a 50 miles south of the equator at the time, but there were a few penguins that could be found on the northern part of the Island as well.
Speaking about being on the equator, by the end of this kayak trip I hadn’t put on any sunblock since we left. I was burnt to a crisp. I had fashioned myself a shawl out of an old shirt to keep my head safe from the sun. I knew it looked silly, but I didn't care. It was worth all of this to get the opportunity to see the penguins.
The long boat ride home gave us the opportunity to reflect on all that we got to see. I couldn’t wait for the next adventure!