A small fish was swimming around the toilet bowl and a baby crab was tasting a toothpaste dribble in the sink.
Outside, a diving pelican was splashing the deck and a sea lion was barking for attention whilst eyeing up the wind vane bracket as a potential sun spot.
The crab made it back down the plug hole … we’re not sure about the fish. RIP.
The pelican caught its fish. The sea lion gave up on us and settled on the back steps of the catamaran next door. They do stink of fish, so it was probably for the best.
This scenario was on day two of our three week visit to the Galápagos Islands, off the coast of Equador. And our wildlife encounters became ever more up close and personal.
We’ve been chased up beaches by sea lions, had sharks circling the boat, been dive bombed by birds, walked into giant spider webs, hidden behind rocks from hammerheads, been snorted at by iguanas, played follow me with lizards and chatted to passing penguins whilst sipping happy hour beers.
It has been an extraordinary experience.
But first … sailing … from Pearl Islands, Panama to Galápagos Islands, Equador
7pm, Wednesday 20 March – 1°55.8N 85°39.1W, Pacific Ocean, 582 nautical miles from Panama.
Destination San Cristobal, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador 302 nautical miles away.
The full moon is so bright it illuminates the entire ocean like liquid mercury. Through the binoculars we can see the moon’s craters; it’s so bright the stars have given up trying to shine through.
It’s flat calm, with just a breath of warm breeze. We’re sailing silently along with a headsail and un-reefed mainsail and averaging six knots as we’re pulled along by the Panama Current. There isn’t a cloud in the sky or another ship in sight as far as the eye can see. But we are not totally alone.
For the last hour a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins have been keeping us company. Diving under Baggy’s keel, leaping clear out of the water at her bow and making us jump exhaling through their blow holes.
The six day and 22 hour passage from Panama to Galápagos was memorable.
We passed a lot of ships in the first 24-hours as we left the Pearl Islands and rounded Punta Mala (the south west point of Panama). It’s a point any ship has to go round if going up the west coast of the US, or going across to the Pacific. There were often two to three cargo ships in view at any one time – one was as big as 300 metres long! But by day two we were mostly alone, spotting the occasional ship on the chart plotter, but no other small yachts.
The first few nights were cold and the sea smelt different to the Atlantic. More salty and less earthy. The duvet came out for the first time since northern Spain and layers were dug out of deep lockers for night watches.
But the Captain still claims he hasn’t put a pair of trousers on since leaving Gosport.
Just shy of two days the wind dropped to 0.0 – 1.5 knots. We were around 270 miles into the passage, still north of the equator, and we had hit the dreaded doldrums.
But we didn’t completely stop. We were still achieving three knots of speed over the ground, thanks to the constant current. But there was swell, the sails slapped and we were forced to de-rig and turn on the engine. We motored for 72 hours.
About Doldrums: they’re caused by the ‘inter tropical convergence zone’ – light, variable winds that bring thunderstorms and squalls. It’s where the south east trade winds of the south meet the north east trade winds of the north. It’s the mixing of these two air masses that cause the flat calm windless state – the curse of all sailors!
Equator crossing: Sailing across the equator into the Southern Hemisphere was a first for both of us.
It’s traditional amongst sailors to have an initiation ceremony for this event – with the person who has crossed the equator before dressing up as Neptune. As we were both ‘equator virgins’, we made a crown and trident and took it in turns to dress up and chuck buckets of seawater over each other’s heads and flour in each other’s faces! SOME video evidence can be seen in our passage video Sailing from Panama to Galapagos Islands.
We also gave our dried chillies to Neptune because we couldn’t take them into Galapagos … and a dram of Glenlivet whiskey!
We had fun, but we also reflected on how far we’ve come. We will be living in the Southern Hemisphere for two years now! Oh – and we can confirm the water does go down the plug hole the other way.
Art afternoons: the colouring pencils came out to make posters. ‘No Dangerous Waste’ for the heads and ‘No Garbage Overboard’ for the recycling bin and on deck.
We also set up the requested separate bags for ‘Organic’ ‘Cardboard’ ‘Plastic’ and we added an additional one for ‘Tins and glass’. This made me very happy.
When Baggy met Beryl: After checking us out with ever closer test flights ‘Beryl’ a Red-footed Booby attempted to land on us just before sunset. I’ll be honest, it didn’t go brilliantly, but she eventually landed on the genoa pole.
After assessing her new accommodation she wrapped her huge, red, plastic looking feet round the aluminium guard rail, balanced and preened – for HOURS.
Feathers were slicked, plucked, nibbled, ruffled and discarded into the sea. When we turned on the nav lights she took a liking to perching directly over the red port light, like a booby of the night!
She went fishing the next morning, leaving a right old mess on the anchor. And returned 24 hours later to guide us into the protected lee of San Cristobal island.
About the Red-footed Booby: Uncommon in Galapagos, feeds at sea and can, apparently, be aggressive!
Customs: there are very strict rules on the food you can bring into the Galápagos and we were inspected by environmental officers immediately upon arrival.
Our Galápagos agent advised ‘no fruit or veg, no chillis, no fresh meat, dairy or fish’. We then found the official list of prohibited items online with even more no-no’s from shelled nuts, to all seeds.
Considering we’d stocked up with enough supplies to last us till June .. we had a lot on the no-no list.
So we …
• Grated 10 nutmegs into powder
• Shelled 1 kilo of dry roasted peanuts
• Put half our chillis in oil and gave the rest to Neptune
• Ate at least four onions every day ((and even more fresh garlic cloves)
• Peeled and dried ten heads of garlic … which later went mouldy
• Soaked and boiled mung beans and made big batches of hummus?!
• Ate 12 bananas in three days
• Panic ate three packets of long life processed cheese
If anyone wanted to find us on this deserted ocean all they had to do was follow the trail of flour, banana skins, nut shells, chillies, booby feathers … and the whiff of garlic.
Dinners on passage:
• Black eyed bean stew and cous cous
• Tuna fish cakes and sautéed garlic cabbage
• Mung bean burgers and salad
• Dhal, poppadoms and cucumber raita
• Potato salad, mackerel and peas
• Spanish tortilla and salad
Plus lots of cheese and onion sandwiches!
Water: Oh, how we deeply appreciate and miss clean, unlimited, fresh, ‘turn the tap on‘ water!
On board we had a semi-filled tank of ‘earthy but drinkable’ Panama water; four 20 litre jerry cans of undrinkable ‘pond water’ from the Pearl Islands; a limited supply of bottled mineral water and refillable pump dispensers of sea water. Wo-betide us getting any of these muddled up!
In Galapagos we took three water deliveries. 240 litres of fresh water we called ‘Tortoise water’ (in San Cristobal); 240 litres of fresh water we called ‘Pelican water’ (in Santa Cruz) and a final 320 litres of fresh water we called ‘Penguin water’ (in Isabela).
Despite the confusion we got away with Paul drinking one accidental cup of pond water. He’s OK, so far.
We applied for a special permit back in January called an ‘autografo’. This gave us 30-day access to three islands – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela. If we wanted to visit any other, uninhabited islands, we would have needed to employ a licensed National Park guide to accompany us.
The permit is issued subject to strict immigration guidelines and an inspection. So, as well as ensuring food stocks were compliant and recycling systems were in place, we needed to have a spotless hull, fumigation certificate, oil spill response kit and be thoroughly clean throughout – including spotless shoes.
As ready as we could be, the day after we arrived, we nervously welcomed on board eight uniformed Ecuadorian officials.
* One inspected our first aid kits
* One checked our food stocks (by translating labels he could see on his iPhone).
NOTE Several food lockers weren’t checked and they ignored the fridge. We could have kept the expensive processed cheese!
* One dealt with immigration and passports
* One was in charge of our hull inspection
NOTE Thanks to our copper coated hull, the Captains elbow grease and several packs of green scourers Baggy’s bum, prop and rudder was sparkling. But – despite hearing divers would check it, or a GoPro camera would be put under the keel – THEY DIDN’T EVEN LOOK.
* One was our agent
* One was a National Park rep filling in forms and inspecting the heads and our recycling facilities (a quick glance!)
* One was a ‘just in case’ policeman
* We’re not sure what the final one did … !
It was chaotic, but over in half an hour, everything was approved and off they went. We felt short-changed after all our efforts. Nothing was confiscated and we were given no advice or information.
We’ve concluded the strong smell of mouldy garlic had driven them away!
BUT .. AT LAST .. we could step ashore in Galápagos
It’s been the highlight of the whole trip so far.
Endemic wildlife is EVERYWHERE. The landscape is incredible and everything is so unique.
These eleven oceanic islands are five million years old. And because they rose up as volcanoes they have never been connected to the mainland. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and 97% of the land is dedicated, uninhabited national park.
Despite 30,000 people living here there are around 4,000 wildlife species native to Galapagos, 40% of them endemic.
ISLAND 1: SAN CRISTOBAL
We anchored in spacious Wreck Bay with around 50 other boats – local tour and dive boats, a few large live-aboards and cruising yachts and catamarans like us.
The main inhabitants of the bay and town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno were the Galapagos Sea Lions.
We found them on benches, under bar tables, on verandas, outside front doors and on every available rock, step, abandoned dinghy and buoy.
A highly efficient $1 a ride water taxi service ferried us back and forth. We’d call one up on the VHF radio and there was always a race between the operators to see who could get to us first. Ashore, the taxi rank platform was always full of feisty sea lions which you had to step over. It was the best taxi rank EVER in my book.
We created our own adventure itinerary without paying for guides or tours (apart from diving). We invested in a field guide, did some online research and these were our TOP FOUR things to do.
1. Shared a taxi with another couple sailing round the world – Soren and Anna from Romania, sailing Mahala – and visited some island sites, which don’t require a hired specialist guide.
– We watched the Magnificent Frigatebirds swooping over Junco Lagoon within a volcanic crater.
– We saw baby and giant tortoises in the San Cristobal breeding sanctuary where they are introducing them back to the island.
– We ate delicious, big red bananas for the first time and spotted the famous Blue-footed Boobies on the rocks at Puerto Chino beach.
2. After a long hike to Lobos Islet we found basking marine iguanas and snorkelled with endangered Green Sea Turtles.
3. We hiked along the coast to Playa del Muerto. The birds were so tame they flew right up to us. And the air was teaming with insects and butterflies and all manner of crawly critters.
4. We went diving off volcanic Kicker Rock in San Cristobal – 148 metres high and deep! We saw LOTS of sharks and entered a GIGANTIC fish ball of endemic salema fish.
In other news:
Fire in Wreck Bay: There was a biblical downpour our first night ashore. The young sea lions loved it, but our entertainment was short lived when a motot boat caught fire in the bay!!
It burnt through its mooring line and drifted uncontrolled across the bay in a blazing inferno. It was a bizarre first experience … to be in the land of environmental pristineness and see a burning inferno and smoke pouring into the stormy sky.
Sewage snorkel: Keen to film sea lions underwater I went to the deserted town beach. No people, but FULL of sea lions, mostly pups and their adolescent mums. I gave them a very wide berth, but the moment I walked near the water I was charged at by a barking feisty mum and sent running back up the beach. I moved much further away hoping their curiosity would bring them to me and slipped into the water … but mum suddenly appeared out of nowhere chasing me out again. I never knew I could run so fast with my fins on!
I gave up, changed and made my sandy, soggy way back through town only to be stopped by a shop keeper who kindly took me I had been snorkeling by the towns sewage pipe and may need a shower.
Realising I was now coated in diluted, but dried, sea lion and human poo I started to itch. And it was little relief to publically wash on deck with dribbles of tepid undrinkable pond water, held aloft in a solar shower bag by your laughing boyfriend. I’d had better mornings.
ISLAND 2: SANTA CRUZ
We anchored in the busy, rolly anchorage of Academy Bay. And instead of being surrounded by sea lions – this time we had large sharks swimming round the boat.
Our TOP FOUR highlights were:
1. Catching the local $1 bus to the centre of the island and walking to El Chato tortoise ranch where the giant tortoises roam free. We explored lava tunnels and scrumped fallen satsumas and passion fruit.
2. Swimming alone in the cool water of Las Grietas gorge at 7am where giant parrot fish are trapped in clear, giant rock pools till the sea comes in.
3. Trekking to Tortuga Bay to see giant surf waves, piles of iguanas and sit under mangrove trees.
4. Diving Gordon Rocks and North Seymour to see lots of green sea turtles and more hammerhead sharks!
In other news ….
Fish market take-away: There can’t be many fish markets in the world where the customers are mostly pelicans, sea lions, iguanas, black lava gulls. frigate birds and iguanas!
ISLAND 3: ISABELA
This is the largest island and we were anchored in Puerto Villamil Bay. The small town has a wild west feel with dirt roads and failing electric. And it was here we had tiny Galápagos penguins swimming round the boat.
Our TOP FOUR things to do were:
1 Cycle to the poignant ‘Wall of Tears’ built, by hand, by penal colony prisoners between 1945 and 1959. Thousands died building it and locals say it emanates eerie cries and has a heavy energy surrounding it. I can vouch for that. Very disturbing place.
2. Dive Tortuga Island where we saw giant Manta Rays and lots more hammerhead shark!
3. Explore ‘The Tunnels’ an area of overground and underground lava tunnels.
4. Snorkelled Concha la Perla – a sheltered bay ‘nursery’ where baby shark practise herding fish balls!
In other news …
‘Saint’ Darwin: Charles Darwin is highly revered here. It would simply be impossible to visit these islands and leave without fully appreciating his theory of evolution!
And finally …
It’s sad to leave. These islands are world class in every way.
Personally I think the national park authorities are doing an ‘OK’ job managing tourism, but they need to be stricter.
During our three weeks here we saw an iguana trying to eat a plastic bag, baby seals swimming in sewage, a booby with plastic round its foot, a seal with loose nylon rope round it’s neck.
And all that carefully separated rubbish? We saw it bundled together into the back of a rubbish truck!
So … what now?
Now, it’s the BIG SAIL. We’ve just had our ‘leaving inspection’ which included the surprise visit of a narcotics sniffer spaniel.
Now we embark on our longest passage so far – 3000 NAUTICAL MILES to the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia.
But as the Captain reassuringly reminds me – it’s only 900 miles more than the Atlantic crossing.
We estimate it will take us between 22 – 26 days. It’s just the two of us, but we’re feeling strong and are well prepared.
You can follow our passage on Yellow Brick here.
AND FINALLY … THIS IS WHAT WE DEFINITELY SAW … (and we actually saw A LOT LOT more)
- San Cristobal Mockingbird (Endemic)
- Galapagos Mockingbird (Endemic)
- Galapagos Flycatchers (Endemic)
- Mangrove Warblers
- Scarlet Tanagers
- Galapagos Dove (Endemic)
- Semipalamated Plovers
- Smooth-billed Ani (introduced to control ticks)
- LOTS of the 17 famous Darwin Finches (Endemic)
- Black-necked Stilts
- Boobies: Nazca, Red-footed,Blue-footed
- Red-billed Tropicbirds
- Waved Albatross (Critically Endangered)
- Herons: Striated, Great Blue
- Egret: Cattle, Great
- Brown Pelicans
- Common Gallinule
- Ruddy Turnstones
- Royal Terns
- Galapagos Shearwater
- Sooty Shearwater
- Frigatebird: Magnificent, Great
- Storm-Petrel: Wedge-rumped, Band-rumpef
- Galapagos Petrel
- Black Lava Gull (Endemic)
- San Cristobal Lava Lizards (Endemic)
- Galapagos Lava Lizards (Endemic)
- Galapagos Centipede
- Galapagos Land Snail (Endemic)
- Sally Lightfoot Crabs
- Red Sun Stars
- Chocolate Chip Sea Stars
- Pencil Sea Urchins
- Galapagos Blue Butterflies (Endemic)
- Galapagos Sulphur Butterfly (Endemic)
- Monarch Butterfly
- Hummingbird Moths
- Yellow Paper Wasps (Introduced)
- Carpenter Bees (Endemic)
- Painted Locusts
- Spotwing Dragonfly’s
- Zigzag Spiders (Endemic)
- Scalloped Hammerhead Shark (Endangered)
- Green Sea Turtles
- Galapagos Shark
- Blacktip Reef Shark
- Spotted Eagle Rays
- Bullnose Rays
- Jewelled Moray Eels
- Reef Cornetfish
- Pacific Creolefish
- Black-striped Salema (Endemic)
- Bumphead Parrotfish
- Blue-barred Parrotfish
- Azure Parrotfish
- Spanish Mackerel
- Long-nose Butterflyfish
- Panamic Sergeant Major
- Sunset Wrasse
- Mexican Hogfish
- Blue and Gold Snapper
- Yellowtail Surgeonfish
- Pelican Barracuda
- Scribbled Filefish
- Long-spined Porcupinefish
- Manta Rays
- Galapagos Penguins (Endemic)
- Greater Flamingo