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Entries about animals

Game viewing in Etosha

Namibia Days Ten to Twelve


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Signpost in Etosha National Park

We had spent the morning visiting the black eagle chick in his nest at Huab Lodge and not left until after lunch, but following Suzi’s recommended short cut we arrived at Etosha National Park in good time.

We had our first exciting sighting on the road between the park entrance and our accommodation, when I spotted a rhino quite a long way off on our left. The sun was already quite low in the sky and the rhino was backlit, but we managed to get a couple of passable photos.

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Rhino, late afternoon sun

Okaukuejo Camp

When planning this trip we had the choice of staying inside the park in one of several government-run rest camps (with fairly basic chalet style accommodation) or outside in more up-market lodges with organised game drives included. We chose the former – partly because we needed to balance the books as some of our other choices were splurges, and partly because we quite liked the idea of exploring on our own.

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Warthogs fighting on the lawn at Okaukuejo Camp

Our choice was Okaukuejo Camp because of its good location on the south side of the park near the gate where we arrived, Ombika. This is the oldest tourist camp in Etosha. Our room was in a chalet, reminiscent of the old British holiday camps, and wasn’t particularly well-equipped, although I guess things could have improved since 2004. It was especially short on blankets, which in the chilly July nights was a major draw-back!

On this first day we only had time to settle into that sparse chalet (no photos as this was pre-VT days and I had no interest in photographing such dull accommodation!) and go to dinner. Here we found the other down-side of Okaukuejo – meals were self-service in a large dining hall that had all the atmosphere of a school canteen, and the quality of the food was a bit patchy, although the meat was pretty good. One nice thing though was that some local children came to perform songs and dances during the meal.

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Evening entertainment

After dinner we went to the camp’s main attraction, a permanent waterhole which is floodlit at night and attracts a fair amount of game. This is the centre of camp nightlife! Everyone gathers round the hole after dark to see what animals are visiting. We were thrilled to see a mother and baby rhino this evening, although it was too dark (despite those floodlights) to take photos of them, at least with the limited equipment we had back then.

The next morning we were up early for an equally dull buffet breakfast, the compensation being spotting some oryx down at the waterhole.

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The camp waterhole with oryx

Etosha National Park

The best time for game viewing in Etosha National Park is from May to September, the cooler months in Namibia, and as we were there in July we hoped to see plenty of animals. I’d read that visitors can usually expect to see antelope, elephant, giraffe, rhino and lions, and in our short stay we managed to see all of these (although the lions only at night). Apparently, some lucky visitors also see leopard and cheetah, but we didn’t find any here, although we were to see the latter a few days later at Okonjima. There is a good network of roads linking the rest camps and various waterholes and other game viewing spots, all of which are navigable with a regular saloon car, so driving yourself is a possibility here as an alternative to guided game drives.

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Wildebeest obeying the sign on our car window
(the sign is there to remind tourists to drive on the left, hardly a problem for us!)

So as soon as we’d finished our breakfast, we set off on our independent game drive. A detailed map showed us what roads were accessible to us, all of which were on the southern edge of the great salt pan, plus waterholes, viewpoints, picnic area etc. We mapped out a route that would take us quite close to the far end, with several detours off to promising-sounding waterholes.

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Zebras

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Another zebra
(taken by Chris)

Etosha Game Park was declared a National Park in 1907. It covers an area of 22 270 square km, and while it isn’t as abundant with game as some of the more famous parks on the African continent, it is home to 114 mammal species, 340 bird species, 110 reptile species, 16 amphibian species and one species of fish.

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Springbok

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Ostrich

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Wildebeest

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More wildebeest

Etosha means ‘Great White Place’, and the name suits the landscape, which is dominated by a massive mineral pan. This covers around 25% of the National Park and was originally a lake fed by the Kunene River. However, the lake dried up when the course of the river changed thousands of years ago. The pan is now a large dusty depression of salt and dusty clay which fills only if the rains are heavy and even then only holds water for a short time. But the springs and water-holes which remain along the edges of the pan attract large concentrations of wildlife and birds, and are the prime spots for viewing game.

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Waterhole with zebras, springboks and elephants
~ what looks like the sea beyond is the pan

Exploring the park

Our day is pretty much a blur now, writing so long after the event, but I know from my VT review and what photos I could find (as I said in my intro, the 35mm slides I know I took have somehow ‘disappeared’ from our collection) that we saw we saw lots of zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, several different species of antelope, a herd of elephants and a few ostriches.

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Ostrich, and oryx

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Giraffes

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Ground squirrel at our lunch stop

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Zebra crossing!

My favourites are always the elephants, and towards the end of the afternoon we found a large herd at a water-hole – definitely the highlight of our self-made game drive for me!

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Elephants at a waterhole

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Sunset at the waterhole

In the evening we watched the sunset over a beer by the camp’s waterhole, and after another uninspiring buffet meal returned to the viewing terrace from where we were excited to see a lion come down to drink, although again too dark to take photos. An exciting end to the day’s game viewing and our short stay at Etosha.

Tomorrow we would head to our final lodge in Namibia, and one of the best!

Posted by ToonSarah 08:27 Archived in Namibia Tagged animals birds sunset wildlife hotel elephants africa safari zebra namibia national_park giraffes salt_flats etosha Comments (14)

With the Africat cheetahs

Namibia Days Twelve to Fourteen


View Namibia road trip 2004 on ToonSarah's travel map.

After two nights in Etosha National Park we left to drive south to our final destination in Namibia, Okonjima Lodge. And we had left one of the best till last!

On the way we stopped in the town of Outjo to fill up with petrol and check emails and news at an internet café (this was before the days of smart phones and wifi everywhere). Of course we took a few photos too!

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Panorama shot (stitched) of Outjo

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In Outjo

Okonjima Lodge

We arrived at Okonjima around lunch time and were welcomed and shown to our room. This was in an individual round adobe hut, beautifully decorated and with part of the wall cut away and covered with a canvas flap so that we could ‘let the outside in’. Bird food was provided so that we could encourage them to visit our little ‘patio’ with its small bird bath– a family of ptarmigans visited us soon after our arrival!

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Door to our room, and seating area

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Our room

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Feeding the birds

The large main building or lapa is apparently shaped like a Camelthorn pod. It is open-sided and overlooks a lawn and beyond it a waterhole.

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Okonjima Lodge

But the star attraction for us on this first afternoon was the resident semi-wild lynx, Pixie. She was tame enough to hang around the lodge and tolerated people but we were warned not to try to pet her as she was pretty aggressive when upset.

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Chris photographing Pixie

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Pixie
(image on the right taken by Chris)

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Pixie

The Africat Foundation

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Tracking the cheetahs

Late afternoon it was time for us to head out on our first activity here, a visit to the Africat Foundation. This is a non-profit organisation, based at Okonjima. It is devoted to the conservation of cheetahs and leopards, rescuing animals that have been trapped by local farmers; providing humane housing, treatment and care for orphaned and injured animals; educating visitors and local people, especially farmers and school-children, about the animals they protect.

They provide a home and care for animals that cannot at present be released back into the wild, often orphaned cubs that are too young to cope on their own. These have either been captured without their mothers or their mothers have been killed. Others are animals that have been in captivity elsewhere and have become habituated to people or completely tame, making them unsuitable for release.

Most of the cheetahs and leopards that have suffered injuries are returned to the wild after recuperation, but in cases where the injuries have been too extensive, the cats have had to remain in captivity. The animals are housed in spacious enclosures of between five and four hundred acres in a natural, stress-free environment.

On our visit we went first to see the clinic and food preparation area, and then went into the cheetahs’ huge enclosure in jeeps which were delivering their food (very large and bloody joints of game!) I’d imagined that we’d be lucky to spot a few cheetahs in the distance but that wasn’t the case at all. The rangers can identify roughly whereabouts in the enclosure the cheetahs currently are, as they are all radio-collared. And once the jeeps are close to them there is no need to search further, we discovered, as they have learned to associate the noise of the vehicles with food and soon came running towards us.

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Some of the cheetahs

It was a fantastic experience to see how fast and how beautifully they run, and then to be able to watch them from such a close distance – at times only a metre from the jeep.

Back at the lodge we enjoyed an excellent dinner followed by a night-cap while sitting around the large (and necessary!) fire in the lounge area of the lapa.

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Getting warm!

Bush walk

We were up early on the following morning for another of Okonjima’s popular activities, a ‘Bushman walk’. An early morning snack consisting of tea or coffee and muffins was available at the lapa before we set out, wrapped up warmly against the morning chill. With our guide we followed an easy trail around the surrounding property. The guide stopped in various pre-arranged spots to describe an aspect of the San bushman’s life, such as fire-making, hunting, trapping etc. Although he wasn’t a bushman himself, he had lived with a San tribe in the north for about a year while studying and could tell us lots of interesting stories about his time there.

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Fire-lighting the bushman way
~ twisting a thin stick quickly in a hole in a larger stick to create sparks

The walk lasted about 90 minutes and we got back to the lodge in time for brunch. This was a substantial meal of maize porridge, muesli and other breakfast cereals, fruit, yoghurt, salami, cheeses and bread, followed by eggs, sausage or bacon. Brunch was served daily at Okonjima instead of a conventional lunch and we were certainly glad of it after our early start!

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Kudo on the law

We spent much of the day relaxing at the lodge, making the most of what was our last full day in Namibia. Between a dip in the pool, a walk around the grounds, taking more photos of Pixie and enjoying sitting outside our bungalow watching for birds, we were kept very happily occupied.

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The waterhole during the afternoon and at sunset

Local nightlife

After dinner everyone wrapped up warmly for a short drive to a hide that the lodge has set up for visitors to view two rather special local animals. On arrival we were reminded to keep very quiet as we all filed into the space. Torches were provided so that we could see where we were going. Everyone was seated on a long bench, and when we were all in place our torches are switched off and the flaps covering the window slots were lifted. The guides put raw meat in a clearing just in front of us, and we waited …

The porcupines were first to arrive – three or four of them came snuffling out of the surrounding trees and nosed around the meat for a while. We all took photos and the flashes didn’t seem to bother them at all – the guide explained that they probably think it’s lightening. But you will need a good flash to get a photo - mine were a little disappointing so I borrowed an image from the lodge website, with permission.

After a while the porcupines left, just as the honey badgers arrived. Just one at first, then a couple more. These aren’t anything like the shy, cuddly British badger, being notorious for their strength, ferocity and toughness. In fact I read a description of them as the fiercest animals, for their size, in the whole of Africa. Perhaps that’s why the porcupines left!

Again, my photos weren’t successful, so here is a copyright free image found online.

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Honey badger

After an hour or so watching and enjoying, it was time to go back to the lodge to get warm by the roaring fire, and a welcome warming drink. A great last evening in Namibia.

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In the bar

Time to go home

The next morning, after another good brunch, we packed up the car for the fairly short drive back to Windhoek. We had some time to spare so drove into the centre for a look around. This isn’t the daunting adventure the drive into some capitals would be as Windhoek is relatively small and quiet. We had already learned, while in Swakopmund, the best way to park in a town centre in Namibia. Local people, usually young men, hover by the kerb ready to approach you as soon as you step out of the car, in order to offer to look after it. If you accept, you’re charged a small fee and a slip of paper is tucked under the wiper to indicate that ‘this car is being watched, so meddle with it at your peril’. At times three or four people were competing for our custom in this way.

We didn’t find out what would happen to your car, if anything, if you refused these offers as we never did. We were conscious that:
a) this fee may be his main or only source of income
b) it was still a lot cheaper than parking in most cities around the world
c) it was a lot less hassle than a damaged or stolen hire car would have been!

We didn’t have much time for sightseeing, so we just strolled around a bit and went into a couple of shops. If I remember rightly, we bought some coffee to take home as gifts (I may be wrong about that detail – I didn’t note it at the time, and it was almost sixteen years ago!)

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Shop sign on a wall in Windhoek

All too soon it was time to drive to the airport, forty kilometres east of the city centre, and hand in our hire car. To our relief nothing was said about the few extra scratches it had acquired during the past fortnight. I guess minor scratches are to be expected driving on those gravel roads and only more significant damage is considered an issue.

We flew home to London via Johannesburg as on our outward journey. It was an overnight flight which is always tiring, but we were grateful for two things – firstly, that there is no jet lag travelling south to north like that, and secondly that it was July so we weren’t transitioning from a hot climate to a cold one!

Writing this sixteen years later I still look back on this as one of our best trips ever, and would love to return to Namibia … one day perhaps.

Posted by ToonSarah 09:00 Archived in Namibia Tagged animals night road_trip wildlife hotel flight africa namibia kalahari customs big_cats Comments (10)

The adventure begins!

Ecuador day ten


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

A world apart

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The Angelito seen from the beach of Sombrero Chino

For many years I wanted to visit the Galápagos: to walk on these remote islands where unique species thrive, where Darwin first developed the ideas that would change our understanding of nature, and where animals have never learned to fear humankind. And in 2012 I realised my dream. And fortunately, it more than lived up to my expectations!

A week of discovery, with each day surprising us with something new, something special. One day, a giant manta ray languidly turning in the waves beneath the cliffs where we stood. Another, an albatross chick, already enormous, sitting watching us as we sat and watched him. On one memorable morning, we were spellbound by a group of young Galápagos hawks who clustered around a new-born sea lion pup and his mother, one of them eventually swooping in to grab the placenta which all then eagerly devoured. And on another, we swam and snorkelled with a group of lively sea lions, patrolled by the watchful alpha male who tolerated our intrusion but disdained to join the fun.

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Galápagos wildlife

We spent our week travelling the islands on board the Angelito, one of the older established boats available for tourist cruises, and one of the best value. Its itineraries and guiding are recognised as first class, but the boat itself is less than luxurious, though it has all that you need for a wonderful week at sea. No fancy cabins or leisure facilities, but a friendly and super-helpful crew, great meals conjured up in a tiny galley, a knowledgeable guide (Fabian) considerate of everyone’s needs, and enough space in which to chill and appreciate your surroundings between island visits. What more could we have asked?

We were also fortunate to find ourselves travelling with a super group of fellow explorers. Drawn from six nationalities, and spanning several decades in age, everyone nevertheless got on incredibly well, helped by a shared passion for what we were seeing and a respect for each other’s right to enjoy (and photograph!) it as much as we were.

In this and the following entries I want to share these experiences of our trip of a lifetime with you. So let’s go!

Galápagos day one

After our overnight stay at the Grand Hotel in Guayaquil we were up early (very excited!) We had breakfast in the same coffee shop where we’d eaten dinner – this was a much better meal than that had been, with a selection of hot and cold items served buffet style along with fresh fruit, a wide selection of rolls and pastries, and decent coffee.

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At the airport

After breakfast we were picked up for our transfer to Guayaquil’s modern airport, José Joaquín de Olmedo International Airport. The airport is only four miles from the city centre and as it was a Sunday traffic was light and we were there very quickly. The airport terminal is very new (at the time it was the newest in the country, since superseded by Quito’s new airport). It was opened in 2006 and the old terminal turned into a convention centre.

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Coming in to land

This is the nearest airport to the Galápagos and many flights from Quito stop here to pick up passengers. We found it to be relatively quiet and well-organised for the additional complications of a Galápagos flight – buying our INGALA transit control cards (INGALA is the agency that regulates travel to the islands), and having our luggage inspected to meet quarantine regulations. Both these operations went smoothly and we had time for a coffee in the bright and comfortable departures area (with good free wifi) before boarding our plane. Only 15 hours after arriving in Guayaquil, we were leaving already.

The flight lasted 1 hour 45 minutes, but because the Galápagos Islands are an hour behind mainland Ecuador, we arrived well before lunch-time. Our first views of the islands, from the air, were enough to raise the excitement levels further. Our dream holiday was about to begin!

But first, there were some more formalities to get through. Everyone visiting the Galápagos has to pay a $100 national park fee, and as this can’t be paid in advance, it must be done on arrival at the airport and in cash. I was pleased that in addition to the attractive souvenir ticket I also got my passport stamped.

Baggage claim consisted of all luggage being piled up in a hall to one side of the arrivals area, and once we’d retrieved ours we were able to exit to the main part of the airport where Fabian our guide was waiting for us all to escort us to the Angelito.

Transfer to the boat

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Crossing from the jetty to the Angelito

The airport at Baltra is just a five minute drive away from the small port where the cruise boats moor, and the journey is undertaken on a fleet of elderly buses whose comings and goings are controlled by the military who own the airport. Fabian directed us to the right bus, on arrival at the port, organised the transfer to the Angelito. Even the smaller boats, judging by our experience, aren’t able to moor directly at the dock, so the 16 of us crossed to the boat in one of its two small dinghies, in two groups, while the other was used for our luggage.

We were very soon all on board and looking round eagerly at our home for the next week – and at each other, our travelling companions. It would have been good to have known already at that point that we would quickly become a tight-knit group and would thoroughly enjoy each other’s company as well as the trip itself.

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Our group

The Angelito

Since our trip in 2012 the Angelito has been modernised, so our experiences of it won’t be quite the same as anyone travelling on it now, but I doubt they could be better! We were very happy indeed with our choice of this boat for our Galápagos cruise, as were all the others in our group it seemed. She isn’t a luxury vessel, but she is solidly built (entirely from wood), owned (and crewed) by locals, and provides a friendly, comfortable setting that we believed helped our group to gel and absolutely fitted the unique atmosphere of this special part of the world.

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Moored off North Seymour

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Some of the crew

The Angelito accommodates 16 passengers in 8 cabins, all of which (at that time) had bunk beds. This was one factor keeping the price of her cruises lower than it might otherwise be. But what matters most on a Galápagos cruise is not the comfort of the vessel (imho) but the quality of the guiding and the interest-level of the itinerary. The Angelito offered guides qualified to the top level (level three) and, with a great little engine, the capacity to travel to some of the further flung islands (such as, in our case, Genovesa).

Almost as important, the service we received on board was of a similarly high standard, with plenty of tasty food served by a super-friendly chef and a helpful and ever-smiling crew. The shared public areas were more than adequate for the sixteen of us, with a lounge space inside and seating on a covered aft deck and open foredeck. There was a bar with an honesty system for drinks, including a ready supply of beer, and a small reference library of wildlife guides and other reading material.

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Bunk beds

In November 2012 when we stayed on her, the Angelito’s eight cabins were split between four on the lower deck and four on the upper, with the lounge, dining area, bar and galley on the main deck in between. Cabins couldn’t be pre-booked but were allocated on arrival on board. We were given one on the lower deck, #2. In some ways, I was disappointed not to have the large window of an upper deck cabin (we had only two small portholes) but that was the only disadvantage, and on the plus side, these lower cabins are considered to be more stable during a heavy swell. Chris quickly claimed the upper bunk, which I was glad to agree to. We found we had just enough storage space for our belongings, and soon settled into the space. The cabin was compact but of course we didn’t spend a lot of time in here, other than when sleeping, and the public areas were generous enough that I could always find somewhere to sit on the rare occasions when on board and not eating or socialising. My favourite spot to relax and catch up with my diary or read became the aft deck, where the loungers were shaded and the view of frigate birds and others following our wake always enticing.

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On deck

Although on the basic side, all cabins had a small bathroom with toilet, washbasin and shower, and hot water was plentiful at all times. Sheets were changed once during our stay, and towels were plentiful, both in the cabins and when needed after snorkelling or swimming. This was no luxury cruise, but for a friendly welcome, top-notch guiding and a genuine Galápagos experience, it’s hard to think that we could have done any better than the Angelito.

Because we spent a whole week on the boat and I don’t want to keep repeating myself in these entries, I’ll say a bit more here about life on board.

Meals on the Angelito

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Chef and assistant

To say that meals on the Angelito are generous is an understatement! And not just meals – every time we returned on board after an island visit or a snorkelling session, a treat would be waiting for us. And with two visits each day, and snorkelling on most days, that’s a lot of treats! All meals are included in the cost of the cruise, apart from drinks other than water, tea and coffee, and also apart from those treats and the delicious fruit juices at breakfast time. So with everything already paid for, it would be a shame not to eat it, wouldn’t it?!

A typical day’s eating and drinking would be something like this:

Breakfast, usually served early (somewhere between 6.00 and 7.00, depending on the plans for the day) -
Fruit juice (as fresh and wonderful as everywhere in Ecuador), fresh fruit, bread or toast, jams, cheese and ham, and some sort of eggs – one day scrambled, another a tortilla, and so on. Some days there were extras – one morning we had pancakes with maple syrup, for instance, and another there were little sausages.

After our first landing (usually about 10.30), as we climbed back on board –
Snack, such as more fruit juice and mini empanadas, or biscuits
If we snorkelled after this, we would be greeted on our return with a hot drink – chocolate or a herbal tea.

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Ceviche

Lunch, usually around midday –
Soup, meat or fish with rice, sometimes potato too, and vegetables, and a platter of fresh fruit.

After the afternoon landing, another snack, similar to the morning but never the same. One day we had mini hot-dogs, on another there were slices of excellent pizza.

Dinner, which might be served before or after the evening briefing depending on where and when we were sailing –
Meat or fish with rice, sometimes potato, vegetables and salad, and a dessert such as a mousse or crème caramel. On two special occasions, the dessert was a celebration cake – once for Brian’s birthday which fell on the Thursday of the cruise, and on the final night, when dinner was a buffet with a spectacular fish dish as its centre-piece.

With all this to eat, is it any surprise that despite all the walking and swimming, I put on weight during the week?!

Our itinerary

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Our guide, Fabian

Regulations prohibit any boat from revisiting any island within a fortnight, so all the boats cruising the Galápagos offer two different one-week itineraries, which they alternate. The plus side of this is that anyone with the time, money and enthusiasm who wants to, can book both and have a two week cruise! For the rest of us, short on the first two of these ingredients, there is the difficulty of choosing which to do. Every boat’s schedule is different, although of course with only so many islands to include, there is plenty of overlap.

I studied the options for ages, trying to make up my mind! I’d identified a number of islands I’d particularly like to see, but no boat (in our price range at least) covered all of them in a single week. But the Angelito had been strongly recommended, and its itinerary A covered all but one of my priority islands (Genovesa for the birds, Bartolomé for the views, Española for the albatrosses – only Fernandina was missing). So that was our final choice, and a great one too! I have read that like us, everyone agonises over their choice of itinerary, and everyone has a wonderful time regardless of where they decide to go – there are NO bad itineraries when it comes to Galápagos cruises!

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Our captain

Anyway, the A itinerary of the Angelito which we experienced was (in 2012):

1. Sunday: Baltra – North Seymour

2. Monday: Sombrero Chino – Bartolomé

3. Tuesday: Genovesa: Darwin Bay and Prince Phillips Steps

4. Wednesday: Santiago (Puerto Egas) – Rabida

5. Thursday: Santa Cruz: Darwin Station, Puerto Ayora and Highlands

6. Friday: Española: Playa Gardner and Punta Suarez

7. Saturday: Santa Fe – South Plaza

8. Sunday: Black Turtle Cove (Santa Cruz) – Baltra

Of all the islands we visited, my favourites proved to be two of those I had especially aimed to see (Genovesa and Española) and one that I had not (Santiago), although it was Santa Fe that gave me two of my most memorable experiences – snorkelling with sea lions, and a close encounter with Galápagos hawks.

My following entries will cover all the wonderful places we went and sights we saw, but again to avoid too much repetition, I will start with one describing some of the wildlife we encountered on the islands …

Posted by ToonSarah 00:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals islands boat wildlife cruise galapagos ecuador Comments (10)

Of iguanas, sea lions and other beasts

Ecuador days ten to seventeen


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Animals of the Galápagos

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Land iguana on North Seymour

The Galápagos Islands are located 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coast in the Pacific Ocean. There are 14 large islands and 120 smaller islets and rocks. Their isolation from any other place has resulted in the evolution of many unique species of flora and fauna, endemic to the archipelago or even to just one island within it.

The islands have been formed through volcanic activity, due to a “hot spot” just the west of the group (under Fernandina). Eruptions here cause an island to form from the lava and rock emitted from beneath the sea bed. But rather than create one ever-growing island, made larger by each new eruption, the slow south-eastward movement of the tectonic plate on which they sit means that by the time of a subsequent eruption the island created by the previous one is some miles to the east, and instead a new one forms. Thus each island is on a slow journey south and east (moving at a rate of seven cm/year); those furthest on that journey, such as San Cristobal and Espanola, are the oldest, and those in the west, such as Fernandina and Isabela, much younger (in geological terms).

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Colours of the Galápagos - Isla Santiago and Isla Rabida

A keen geologist will be fascinated by the details, but for the rest of us the attraction lies in the vivid scenery that results from all this activity, and for me, above all the colours. A jumble of black lava boulders, the backdrop to a white coral beach. Or a black lava beach washed by a turquoise sea. Or again, on Rabida, dark red cliffs with dusty green opuntia clinging to them.

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Giant tortoise

And this dramatic scenery is the set for a multitude of living dramas, as the various animal species play out their lives under the gaze of mesmerised visitors. For the islands’ isolation has not only led to the large number of endemic species being present, but also to their tame and inquisitive nature. The Galápagos were never attached to any continent and the island chain's remote location made it impossible for large land mammals that usually dominate the food chain to make the journey to the here. The giant tortoise became the dominate animal on the land, and he is a herbivore, so no threat to the others. With this lack of natural predators, the wildlife of the Galápagos thrived in an Eden-like environment and never learned to be fearful of other species – even our own. Meeting these animals and interacting with them in their own environment is the true joy of a Galápagos holiday, so this blog entry is devoted to a description of the main ones we saw on a lot of the islands, while more about the most memorable of these encounters will follow in future entries describing the individual islands we visited.

Galápagos sea lion

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Sea lions at Gardner Bay, Isla Espanola

The first animals to greet us on almost every island were the sea lions. And I do mean “greet”. It often seemed that they had been lolling around on the beach or even the landing jetty just waiting for our arrival! This isn’t a scientific distinction, but for me they fell into four groups – adorable pups, languid and photogenic females, lively bachelor males, and the occasional bolshie alpha male throwing his weight about. The latter are best avoided, but all the others will allow you to come pretty close, and will often come closer still to you.

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Seal lion pup, North Seymour

The Galápagos sea lion is a distinct species, but closely related to the California sea lion. They are found on all the islands and number in the ten thousands. The females usually have just the one pup a year, though Fabian said twins are not unusual and he has once seen triplets! We saw several newborn pups, for example on Sombrero Chino and Española. The babies are nursed by their mother for about six months until old enough to fish for themselves, and most of those we saw were still at this stage, so stayed quite close to mum. Some were more adventurous though and were venturing along the beach or across the rocks. One such followed a few of us for some time at Gardenr Bay on Española, apparently mistaking us for family – so cute!

In addition to these large nursery groups we saw several of bachelor males (including on Isla Rabida and South Plaza). Male Sea Lions sometimes retreat to these so-called bachelor colonies to take a rest from the aggro of the alpha male. Once refreshed they may try themselves to take on one of the latter and to try to establish their own beach territory with several females, which they will then have to defend continuously from other bulls. These fights take their toll – most alpha males we saw were battle-scarred, and Fabian told us that their reign is often short (sometimes only a few weeks) as they grow weaker with each fight and are then more easily vanquished.

Galápagos fur seal

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Fur seal, Isla Genovesa

In addition to the Galápagos sea lions, which are everywhere in the islands, there are a smaller number of Galápagos fur seals. These too are an endemic species, and live mainly on the rockiest shores. They are smaller than the sea lions, and their fur made them a target for poachers in the past, although they are of course now protected and their numbers are growing again. They live in the greatest numbers in the western islands, Fernandina and Isabela, which we didn’t visit. They also tend to be shyer than their cousins! But although we weren’t lucky enough to see any while on any of the islands, we did see some on a couple of our panga rides, most notably off Genovesa when on our way to the dry landing at Prince Philip Steps.

The sea was quite rough here and it was difficult to hold the camera steady, so my photos were not as clear as I would have liked, but they do show the thick fur and distinctive whiskers.

Fur seals are part of the same “eared seals” family as sea lions, and differ from true seals in having small external ear-flaps. Their hind flippers can be turned to face forwards, and, together with strong front flippers, this gives them extra mobility on land – an adult fur seal can move extremely quickly if it has to. They also use their front flippers for swimming, whereas true seals use their hind flippers. Their scientific name is Arctocephalus, which comes from Greek words meaning “bear headed”, and it’s easy to see how they got this name.

Land iguanas

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Land iguana on Plaza Sur

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Land iguana eating opuntia ,
North Seymour

One of the largest animals you can see in the Galápagos are the land iguanas, which on some islands can reach over a metre in length. There are actually two species to be found here – Conolophus subcristatus on six of the islands, and Conolophus pallidus only on Santa Fe. The latter is often a paler yellow than the main species (hence the name, “pallidus”), and has more spines on its back. Charles Darwin described the land iguanas as “ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance.” however I have to say that I disagree with the famous naturalist, as I found them sort of cute, although probably only their mothers would find them beautiful!

All the marine and land iguana species in the Galápagos are thought to be descendants of a single species, the green iguana, which is native on the South American continent. Arriving probably on vegetation rafts to the isles, the green iguana, in order to survive, had to adapt to a new and different environment by evolving into two very distinct new species.

One of these, the land iguana, adapted to feed on the vegetation of the islands. Surprisingly perhaps, they prefer the prickly pear cactus or opuntia. This in turn has evolved, growing much taller than elsewhere in the world to be out of reach of the iguanas, but the latter simply stand on their hind legs to reach the pads and fruit. They have a leathery, tough tongue and don't need to remove the spines from the cactus before eating. The cactus forms about 80% of their diet and ensures that they get plenty of water even in the arid dry season such as when we visited.

Marine iguanas

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Marine iguana on Isla Espanola

The other main species of iguana that you will see on many of the islands are the marine iguanas, of which there are in fact seven sub-species, varying in size and colour. Most are black or dark grey but some have red colouring too, most notably on Española where the males have not only red but often green colouring too, which becomes brighter during the mating season – giving them the nickname of Christmas iguana!

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Marine iguanas,
Isla San Salvador

When the green iguana arrived here, some found themselves on islands where vegetation was sparse, and turned, through necessity, to the plant-life beneath the sea, and thus became the world's only sea-going lizard. They have developed a flattened snout and sharp teeth in order to feed on the algae on the underwater rocks. Their tail is flattened vertically like a rudder to help them swim and they have long claws to grip the rocks while feeding so that they don’t drift away.

Marine iguanas can stay submerged for up to ten minutes, before having to come up for air. When not feeding they are usually found sunning themselves on lava rocks, often in large groups and, as we saw in several places, even piled up on top of one another! Sometimes you will see them appear to sneeze, but in fact they are snorting to get rid of any excess sea salt with the help of special glands in their nostrils.

Lava lizards

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Lava lizard, Isla Espanola

The smallest of the reptiles we saw regularly on the islands were the lava lizards. There are seven species, and there is only ever one species on each island. All but the Galápagos Lava Lizard is found only on the island whose name they bear, whereas the former is found on many islands.

Lava lizards are smaller than the iguanas but nevertheless can grow to up to 30 cm in length (males – females are shorter), although the average is considerably less than that. They are found on all the major islands apart from Genovesa, and are the most abundant reptile on the islands. In all the species the females tend to be more colourful, with a red throat, but on Española the whole head is often bright red. Only the males have spines along their backs, and their colouring and patterns vary quite a bit between species, according to the landscape and environment of the islands, as they have evolved to blend in with their surroundings. They don’t blend in that well however!

Sally Lightfoot crabs

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Sally Lightfoot crabs, Isla San Salvador

These distinctive crabs can be seen all over the Galápagos, especially on the dark lava rocks, and they really catch the eye with their vivid orange and blue colouring. They are not endemic to the islands, being also found all along the Pacific coast of South and Central America. Nevertheless they seem to be one of the animals most associated with the Galápagos.

They are quite large (adults can grow to about 20 cm) and really stand out against those dark rocks, so you will spot them easily. They are harder to photograph than some of the other animals though, as they can move quite quickly at times. If you spot one that appears to be blowing bubbles from under the shell, as in my second photo, it’s an indication that it will soon be discarding its shell. The crabs have to do this periodically as they grow, because the shell doesn’t grow with them and becomes too small. So they shed the old shell and then have to stay in a sheltered, hidden spot such as a crevice in the rocks until the soft new one beneath it, now exposed, can harden. During this time they are very vulnerable and would make a tasty meal for a sea bird, hence the need to hide.

Also known more prosaically as red rock crabs, these are among the most beautiful of crabs. The colour can vary but is always bright, although the young are dark brown (for camouflage on the rocks). John Steinbeck, one of my favourite authors, wrote about them:

everyone who has seen them has been delighted with them. The very name they are called by reflects the delight of the name. These little crabs, with brilliant cloisonné carapaces, walk on their tiptoes. ... They seem to be able to run in any of four directions; but more than this, perhaps because of their rapid reaction time, they appear to read the mind of their hunter. They escape the long-handled net, anticipating from what direction it is coming. If you walk slowly, they move slowly ahead of you in droves. If you hurry, they hurry. When you plunge at them, they seem to disappear in a puff of blue smoke—at any rate, they disappear. It is impossible to creep up on them. They are very beautiful, with clear brilliant colours, red and blues and warm browns.

Sea turtles

As well as all the wildlife on the islands and in the air above, there is lots to see in the surrounding waters. You will some marine life from the boat and panga, but to see it at its best it is necessary to get into the sea with them – I loved our snorkelling sessions here.

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Sea turtle, Isla Espanola

The Galápagos Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas agassisi) is a subspecies of the Pacific Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas), and is the only turtle to breed on the islands. Nesting is between the months of December and June, and we were there in November – too early, although Fabian did point out one nest on the beach of Bartolomé, where we also saw a turtle swimming in the sea very close to the shore, his head poked above the waves. We saw several on our last morning too, on a panga ride in Black Turtle Cove, Santa Cruz. But the best place to see them is, as I said, in the water. There were several at our snorkelling site off the beach of Santiago, while my clearest encounter was in Gardner Bay, Española.

The Pacific Green Sea Turtle is listed as an endangered species and is protected from exploitation in most countries, including Ecuador. The Galapagos National Park authorities close certain beaches in the islands when it is nesting season for the Green Sea Turtles to protect the nests from tourist activity. However, the turtles are still in danger because of several human practices. Water pollution indirectly harms them as it threatens their food supplies, and many green sea turtles die caught in fishing nets. If you do find yourself on a beach with a turtle nest, as we did, your guide will point it out – be sure not to walk on it.

Some other animals, seen on only one or two of the islands, will feature in my future entries about our visits to those. Meanwhile though I will continue this overview of the wildlife of the Galápagos in my next entry, with a look at the islands’ birds …

Posted by ToonSarah 01:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals turtles islands lizards wildlife crabs iguanas galapagos seals ecuador sea_lions Comments (4)

Our first landing

Ecuador day ten continued


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North Seymour

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Taking photos on the beach

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The Angelito from North Seymour

As you can imagine, tourism to the Galápagos Islands is very strictly controlled. There are about 60 designated “visitor sites” which you can visit only with an authorised guide. You stick to a marked trail, leaving most of the island free for the animals to enjoy in peace. Some islands have only one visitor site, some have two and the larger ones have multiple sites. Each site is designed to showcase specific scenery, vegetation, and wildlife, although much of the latter can be seen at most locations. And each site will be designated as a “wet” or “dry” landing, depending on whether you have to wade ashore or can step directly on to land (usually a small stone jetty). Before each landing our guide, Fabian, told us what to expect and what footwear would be most suitable (“I recommend you tennis shoes” became something of a catch phrase!) Normally these briefings took place the previous evening but on this occasion we had just boarded the Angelito after landing at Baltra, so our briefing took place as we sailed.

North Seymour was the first island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito, on the afternoon of our arrival day. Many cruises do this, as it is very near Baltra where most tourist flights arrive. And it’s a great introduction to the Galápagos! This is one of the smallest islands in the archipelago, less than 2 square kilometres. It is rather flat and was created by an uplift of land rather than, like many of the larger islands, being the eroded top of a volcano.

Landing on North Seymour

The landing here is a dry one, on lava rocks dotted with crabs. Even a small boat like the Angelito can’t moor directly at the island, so to cross to the island we took the pangas or small dinghies. We wore life-jackets every time for these short crossings, putting them on before getting into the dinghies and discarding them in the boat before stepping out on to the shore.

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Rocky shore near the landing place (with swallow-tailed gull)

Once on the rocks we all gathered around Fabian for a first introduction to the island, while the dinghies returned to the Angelito to await his call later to pick us up. This way the landing place is left free for any other groups arriving on the same island. Sometimes we did get an island to ourselves, but inevitably on others there would be more than one group there at a time, so we had to leave room for them to land. But Fabian was quite clever at making sure we didn’t get too caught up in other groups – for instance, we often went the opposite way round a loop trail so that we just passed them at one point!

The lava rocks

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Our first marine iguana

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Lava lizard, North Seymour

The trail on North Seymour is about 2.5 km in length and is rated as moderate/difficult, although as an inexperienced walker with a dodgy knee I didn’t find it too bad! It starts here on the lava rocks by the landing place. This rocky area was a good introduction to some of the wildlife of the Galápagos, as we saw our very first endemic species here, the idiosyncratic marine iguanas. These are the world's only sea-going lizard. They have developed a flattened snout and sharp teeth in order to feed on the algae on the underwater rocks, and can stay submerged for up to ten minutes, before having to come up for air. When not feeding, they are usually found sunning themselves on lava rocks, and this was how we first encountered them here on North Seymour.

We also saw swallow-tailed gulls here (endemic to the Galápagos), and lava lizards, as well as our first Galápagos dove.

On the trail

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Land iguana on North Seymour

From here we headed inland on a rocky trail which took us over mainly flat ground through a forest of grey palo santo trees and opuntia. This is where we saw our first land iguanas, and realised for the first time just how close we could get to the animals here.

There is an interesting story attached to the land iguanas here on North Seymour – a rare example where man’s interference in nature has proved to have a positive consequence. It is told fully in a Galápagos Online blog article, but to summarise:

In the early part of the 20th century neighbouring Baltra (also known as South Seymour) was home to numerous land iguanas, because of its plentiful supplies of opuntia or prickly pear cactus, their favourite food. In the 1930s the members of a scientific expedition noticed that, surprisingly, there were no land iguanas on North Seymour, despite it having even more vegetation. They had already been concerned to note that those on Baltra seemed to be suffering from starvation, so decided to move some to North Seymour. Such interference would normally be deplored, as introducing non-native species can have a disastrous effect, but it turns out to have been providential. In 1943 a military base was established in Baltra, and shortly after the end of the war land iguanas became extinct on that island. The reason for the extinction has been speculated for many years. The military personnel stationed here have been blamed for killing the iguanas for sport, but it seems more likely that the destruction of their natural nesting habitat, through the use of local sand etc. in construction, was to blame, and/or possibly workers from the mainland killing them for their skins.

Whatever the reason, by 1953 there were no more land iguanas on Baltra. The Baltra sub-species would have been extinct, were it not for the population by now thriving on North Seymour. In the 1980s the Galápagos National Park Service captured iguanas on North Seymour and brought them to the Charles Darwin Research Station for a breeding programme. In the 1990s these land iguanas were reintroduced to Baltra. Today Baltra has a healthy population of land iguanas that live happily alongside the military base and airport, but they also still remain and thrive on North Seymour.

Bird life

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Palo santo and blue-footed booby

This trail took us through an area full of blue-footed boobies, and also magnificent frigatebirds. I had been looking forward to seeing the former especially, as they seemed to me one of the symbols of the islands, so it was great to see them on this very first landing. Even more exciting, some of them had chicks! Lying so close to the equator, the climate in the Galápagos Islands is relatively stable, and many of the species that breed here do so year round. Here on North Seymour you are likely to see blue-footed boobies with eggs or chicks whenever you visit.

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Blue-footed booby & chick

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Blue-footed booby chick

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Magnificent frigatebird

But it was the magnificent frigatebirds that most attracted my camera – those bulbous red throat displays of the males are pretty hard to ignore! North Seymour is home to the largest nesting site in the archipelago of these well-named “magnificent” birds.

They were sitting in the bushes either side of our path, and many of the males were inflating their scarlet throat pouches, known as "gular pouches", to attract females to mate with them. We saw several groups each vying for the attention of a single female who happened to land in their tree – fascinating to watch and excellent subject-matter for our cameras!

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The female magnificent frigatebird -

Back to the coast

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Sleepy mother sea lion

After a while the trail looped round and returned us to the coast near where we had landed, but further west. The beach here is home to a colony of Galápagos sea lions. It was our first close look at these – and I mean close! We were still learning just how tame the wildlife here could be, and were thrilled at the photo opportunities. We spent a long while here, slowly making our way along the beach and stopping frequently to photograph yet another cute pup. The mothers too looked very photogenic in the golden light of late afternoon. Sea lions typically have just the one pup, and look after it carefully for the first six months of life, so here, as elsewhere on the islands, there were plenty of opportunities to observe the interactions between mum and baby.

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Mothers and pups

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Posing for Chris

As we walked back to our landing point the sun started to sink and we enjoyed some beautiful light for these last photos, with the skin of the sea lions almost golden in colour. There was a lovely sunset over the neighbouring island of Daphne Major. What a wonderful start to our explorations!

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Sunset from North Seymour

Evening on board the Angelito

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Relaxing in the lounge
Geoff and Simon

Once back on board we were able to properly settle into our cabins, before gathering in the lounge area for dinner. This was our first taste (literally!) of the excellent dining we were to enjoy all week – not fancy but very tasty and generous, and especially impressive given the small size of the galley. It was also a chance to start to get to know each other, which we did over a few beers from the honesty supply (note what you take from the bar on the sheet of paper pinned above it and the tally will be totalled at the end of the week). Fabian also delivered the first of his evening briefings, outlining the plans for the next day when we would visit two of the small islands that lie off Santiago – Sombrero Chino (Chinese Hat) and Bartolomé.

The Angelito spent most of the night moored off North Seymour, before sailing to Sombrero Chino in the early hours of the morning …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises animals birds islands lizards iguanas galapagos ecuador sea_lions isla_seymour Comments (6)

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