Blog Archives: Galapagos Islands


Wildlife Spectacles in the Galapagos Islands

Galapagos Islands - New Experiences to Add to my Memories

‘This is a good spot to find turtles,’ Bolivar our guide said as we adjusted our masks and put our flippers on, ‘but the water might be cold’. Those were the last words I heard as I slid from the panga into the water. He wasn’t wrong on either front. Submerging into the bay, my lungs tightened and breath become shorter, wow, this water was more than cold. I started to swim to warm up, before long my breath started to regulate and eyes adjusted to this silent underwater world. Moving through the water, eagerly looking all around, a dark round shape came into view. A turtle! Excitedly looking around to find my husband, he was nodding in excited agreement. We swam slowly along, not more than an arms-length from the gentle creature, just floating in the current. More and more turtles came into view, there were three, four, five, six of these giant animals just floating beside us. Looking around, we were totally surrounded, there were turtles in every direction, from the sea bed to the water’s surface. They were not in the slightest bit disturbed by us, just floating gently backwards and forwards in the current grazing on algae with wise old eyes. We felt compelled to do the same and just drifted in the water, part of this 50-strong bale.

The serenity of these ancient creatures, the silence of being under water and the swaying in the rhythmic pattern of the waves was almost meditative. The numbness in the fingers and the tightness in the cold muscles was the only reason to force us from the water. As we got back into the panga, cold and shivering, I knew we had just witnessed a special moment, one of many, the enchanting Galapagos Islands have to offer.

The Galapagos archipelago straddles the equator, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. A national park, marine reserve and truly special place. A 90-minute flight over the Pacific Ocean brings you to the islands, you can feel the excitement levels build inside the plane as they come into view and people clamber to get a glimpse of the much-anticipated islands. I have been fortunate to visit these islands a few times before so did wonder whether the magic would still be there for me? Is there anything new the islands have to offer? Stepping off the plane onto the runway, I felt the same buzz and excitement as a decade ago and knew the answer to my first question. A definite yes.

Daphne Major Island, GPS, from Evolution boat

Our seven-day aquatic adventure, took in several Galapagos islands offering a glimpse into the different ecosystems of the famed islands, brilliantly narrated and educated by our superb guides and with inspiring evening lectures from evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins. Whilst taking the short crossing to the island of Fernandina, the western-most, youngest and most volcanically-active of the islands, our guide noticed something unusual in the behaviour of the birds. A quick detour took us to an area where blue-footed boobies were flying in ever increasing numbers above our heads. ‘There must be sardines in the area,’ said Bolivar ‘the birds have all come for lunch’. There were vast numbers of blue footed boobies, brown pelicans and frigate birds, the sky was full. The birds seemed to hover, stop and fall from the sky as if someone turned gravity off, hitting the water like arrow heads. It was as if it was raining birds. No sooner had they dived than they resurfaced and regrouped like a synchronised air display. The birds fly overhead looking at the school of fish, one of the boobies gives the signal and then they all dive at the same time, this startles and scatters the fish, meaning a better chance of a catch. Half an hour passed as we watched in awe at this fascinating behaviour, including the guides who were equally excited by this rare spectacle.

After a week cruising in these enchanting islands, they did not disappoint, with so many new experiences to add to my memories. The Galapagos still hold the magic and the answers to my initial questions were a big yes and yes.

An Adventurer’s Insight – Q & A with Liz Bonnin

Liz Bonnin is a biochemist, wild animal biologist and television presenter.  She presented the spectacular three-part BBC One series Galapagos that aired earlier this year. Her other recent presenting credits include Wild Alaska Live and Stargazing Live. She is an ambassador for the Galapagos Conservation Trust and will be leading our Galapagos Islands Cruise wildlife group tour 9th December 2018.

What was the highlight of your most recent trip to the Galápagos?

Working on the Alucia, a state of the art research vessel, surrounded by the scientists who are studying these enchanted islands, made the entire trip a highlight for me as a biologist. I have always wanted to visit Galápagos, ever since I was a child reading about Darwin’s journey on the Beagle, but to learn about this unique place by following the cutting-edge research taking place there was beyond my wildest dreams. And thanks to the submersibles, helicopter and technology on board the Alucia we were able to explore even the most remote parts of the island chain – from 1000 meters beneath the waves in the Bolívar Canal to the highest caldera on Isabela Island.

Why do you feel so passionately about the Galápagos?

Because of its remote geographical position and the confluence of vital nutrient-carrying cold currents, the sheer wealth and diversity of wildlife in Galapagos is staggering. It’s often been described as a mini earth, a living laboratory for scientists to study and apply their findings to the conservation of the whole of the planet. In Galápagos you walk amongst nature as if you are truly a part of it, not a mere spectator of it, and that experience changes you. These islands give you a glimpse of what the natural world may have once looked like across the globe, and that is incredibly humbling. It’s a very, very special place. To think that the archipelago is now bowing under the pressure of the modern world and that many of its endemic species are endangered makes me want to do everything I can to protect it.

What do you think should be done to help preserve the Galápagos Islands?

Every ecosystem in the planet is inextricably linked, which means that what we do here at home affects the health of Galápagos, and if its health falters our own health will inevitably fail. We are living in an age where the effects our actions and behaviours exert are more apparent around the world than ever before and even remote, seemingly pristine places like Galápagos are no longer immune to the impact of our human footprint. So we all need to step up and show the planet that we can be responsible custodians of all the precious wild places that are ours to protect and cherish, no matter where they are. We need to change our habits and live more sustainably, use fewer resources, recycle responsibly and consume less. What does it say about us if we let the beautiful wildlife of Galápagos diminish on our watch?

Do you have a favourite Galápagos animal?

I think the marine iguanas of Galápagos are fascinating reptiles. Not only have they adapted to become swimming, diving animals that deal with all the salt they ingest while feeding on algae by snorting it out in an unbecoming but highly effective manner, but recent research has shown that when food is scarce they can actually shrink their bones to become smaller, and therefore consume less food, and when the marine algae recovers, they can grow bigger again, all within a year or so! Nature is truly astounding, and we are still only scratching the surface when it comes to our knowledge of what animals are capable of.

Why do you think tourism is important to the future of the Galápagos?

Responsible ecotourism is a very effective way of getting people to care about the planet. There is nothing like immersing yourself in nature, wherever and whenever we can. It’s good for our physical and mental health but it also puts into perspective the grandeur of the natural world and our place in it. Through experiencing nature in all its glory, we can become inspired to protect it. The Galápagos Islands rely not only on tourism for livelihoods but on us all to help to protect their precious wildlife. We need to learn to live alongside, visit and appreciate our wild places without destroying them. It’s possible, as long as we don’t let greed or financial gain get in the way of caring for nature.

What excites you about the prospect of returning to the Galápagos with Steppes Travel?

I’m excited to return and simply soak in the majesty of the place and the stunning variety of fascinating and almost improbable species that will meander past as they go about their lives. I think this will be my last time in Galápagos – part of caring for the place as individuals I think is not returning too often so that the number of visitors can be kept to manageable numbers. So it will be an extra special pleasure to share my knowledge of the place, and perhaps pass on my thoughts about what it means to care for Galápagos, as one of its privileged visitors, long after we’ve returned home and unpacked our bags – what each of us can do to proudly take responsibility of caring for these islands with every small lifestyle change we make.

 

 

 

Steppes Big 5 Reasons Why 2018 Is The Year To Visit The Galapagos

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Galapagos-Sea-lions

Having recently returned from the Galapagos I was reminded of the pure beauty and unique nature of these islands, home to animals and plants found no where else on earth. Standing as one of the most significant wildlife destinations in the world, here are my top 5 reasons why the Galapagos Islands remains one of the most in demand destinations that should be on your travel wish list.

1) Curious creatures

I have been fortunate to have many close wildlife encounters throughout the world but the striking feature of the Galapagos Islands is undoubtedly the fearless nature of the animals. Wildlife that holds no fear of humans is a rare beauty and it does not take long to witness this truly unique aspect.

On my first arrival to the Galapagos, I was greeted by the surreal scene of tangled iguanas and sea lions basking in the sunshine whilst families and beach goers frolicked nearby. Moving occasionally to allow the sea lions to pass in and out of the waters I watched as the locals, clearly at ease, were just meters from these grand creatures. Lying on a quiet section of beach it was not long until I had my first up close encounter as a warm breath tickled my knee – a curious sea lion checking on the latest arrival. Although unnerving at first you soon realise that this is the Galapagos way. Landing on the Islands, you find yourself meandering through wildlife, within just meters of some of the most precious species in the world from the albatross to the giant tortoise and colourful blue footed boobies. This is undoubtedly a completely remarkable experience for any nature lover.

2) Life beneath the waves

My personal highlight of the Galapagos is the marine world. Teeming with wildlife a trip for me is not complete without exploring the hidden treasures beneath the water. Within the clear waters you find yourself surrounded by spectacular marine species from turtles to manta rays set against a vibrant backdrop of multicoloured coral feeders. Dipping into this natural aquarium I could swim within schools of fish, that were equally comfortable in my presence with turtles feeing on the coral. Swimming is completely tranquil with only the occasional distraction of a curious sea lion coming to play.
For those less confident in the water, do not be put off. Opting for a cruise with a glass bottom boat is a great way to explore this tropical underworld and even snorkelling in the shallows off one of the beaches there is more than plenty to see.

3) Landscape variety

The diversity of the Galapagos is nearly as striking as the wildlife with each island having its own personality and history. One day you will be walking on a sweeping white beach and the next exploring the black lava fields. With the young dramatic islands to the west boasting impressive volcanic craters through to the lush forest highlands and the shallow rocky eastern islands there is plenty to explore. Here you can see the full geological evolution of the islands and this wonderful diversity makes the longer cruise itineraries extremely rewarding.

4) Family fun

Exploring nature can be one of the most rewarding experiences for families and the Galapagos offers one of the best locations for your children’s first wildlife encounters. The variety of species will keep the young ones captivated and the close encounters are the experiences that your children will hold sacred for years to come. The variety of the tours makes sure that children are kept busy all day long and with the option to combine a boat based and land based programme, there is the flexibility to keep the young ones interested.

5) Galapagos by land

For those who prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground, there are a selection of wonderful land based options that offer a chance to explore the Galapagos Islands at your own pace. With a handful of inspired properties that are perfectly placed to fully maximise the spectacular surroundings, spend each day touring the nearby islands with the added flexibility offered from top diving locations to secret coves. With African inspired safari tents to modernist feature properties the level of service and accommodation is extremely high and the programmes are innovative to fit with the individual whether your passion is art, bird watching or you simply need to keep the children busy!

Talk to our Galapagos Holiday and Cruise Experts to start your privately guided tour, call us on 01285 601 753 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

The Problems of Overcapacity

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I recently attended an excellent adventure travel conference in which I and my fellow tour operators were asked for our thoughts on four key issues facing the industry: currency, terrorism, Trump and over capacity. We were asked to list them in order of the threat we felt they posed to our respective businesses. I was surprised when currency was voted as the greatest concern to their businesses followed closely by terrorism and Trump. I was horrified by the fact that overcapacity was at the bottom of the list, especially as 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

For me the first three are temporary and not as fundamental as the last — sadly my travel colleagues did not see it this way. Whilst I am not cavalier with my clients’ safety, I am at the mercy of the vagaries of currency fluctuations and am certainly not an advocate of Trump. The dangers of overcapacity are the greatest threat to travel not least for the permanent damage they affect.

With any luck Trump will not be in power in four years’ time and hopefully currencies and regimes will be more stable  —they are issues but short-term ones. The same cannot be said of overcapacity and the harm done to the environment. According to figures of the United Nations, there were nearly 1.2 billion international travellers in 2015, up from 674 million in 2000. This figure is expected to grow to 1.8 billion people by 2030. The travel industry, governments and world bodies are well aware of this increase but is not doing enough to tackle this demand and problem of overcapacity. More specifically if you were to look at the Galápagos, one of the most fragile environments on Earth, the inaction of the Ecuadorian government is poor at best.

The Galápagos is one of the fastest-growing economies in South America with a per capita income higher than anywhere else in Ecuador. Nearly 40,000 people have made their home in the Galápagos, drawn by tourism. With them have come hundreds of introduced species, invasive plants and an infrastructure that simply can’t cope. Yet the authorities do little about this and the entrance fee to the Galápagos has changed by only US$20 in the last 15 years (from US$100 to US$120). Compare this to positive action. In the same fifteen-year time period, the cost for a one-hour gorilla permit in Rwanda and Uganda has increased from US$220 to US$750. Such a large rise has not only increased the revenue from gorilla permits – and hence the money that gets put back into conservation – but also the importance of gorillas to the respective governments and hence the determination of both governments to look after these assets. As a result gorilla welfare and numbers have increased. At Steppes Travel, we try to take positive action. Being responsible in our travels and operations both locally and globally is engrained in all that we do at Steppes.

Each time you travel with us, we donate £5 to a local charity in the UK and £10 to an international charity. Each time we travel, we offset our carbon emissions with the World Land Trust. If you can, we urge you to do the same.

Can tourism in the Galapagos be sustainable?

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So, how can tourism be a force for good in the Galapagos? And at what point will tourism destroy the very essence of what makes tourists visit the Galapagos in the first place?

My Return to the Galapagos

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Gapalgos - Pinker Charter - Galapagos Penguin

My return to the Galapagos has been preceded by the return of the Galapagos Island’s most famous prodigal son, Lonesome George. The world’s last remaining Pinta Island tortoise died in 2012 and following his death, the decision was made to have his body preserved. There followed two years of skillful taxidermy, undertaken by George Dante, founder of Wildlife Preservations based in New Jersey. From 2014, Lonesome George became the reptilian darling of museum lovers in New York, before he finally made his journey of repatriation to Ecuador on February 16th, 2017. After landing in Guayaquil and being declared the “illustrious son of our islands”, George made his way across the Pacific to Santa Cruz Island where he was greeted with the emotive cry of “Bienvenido, Solitario”. His final resting place is the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Centre where he has his own room, entitled the “Symbol of Hope”.

 

But does Lonesome George really represent hope? The sad story of an animal that outlived his own breed to become the last of his kind, strikes me as being more a symbol of despair. His death from old age in 2012 was an unwelcome reminder of the impotency of science and conservation in the face of extinction. Inevitably, his death attracted the vultures to their laptops, writing headlines such as ‘Paradise in Peril’ and ‘Paradise on the Brink’. This notion of ‘paradise’ is a burden that weighs heavy on the islands. It is an unfortunate truth that if a place is portrayed as paradise on earth than any piece of bad news, no matter how trivial, can be spun as proof of a paradise in decline.

On my return to the Galapagos I want to ignore the hyperbole to see if there really is cause for hope on the Enchanted Islands. It was 14 years ago that I last visited the islands and much has changed during this time. One of the major developments is in the growth of land based tourism in the Galapagos, especially on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal. Many see this as a negative development but is it possible that this is a good thing? I want to keep an open mind, ask questions but see with my own eyes and draw my own conclusions. The question I am eager to answer as impartially as I can, is whether tourism on the islands can be a force for good? The Galapagos Islands provide a yardstick against which the impact of sustainable travel as a whole should be measured. If tourism has a role to play in conservation then it has to succeed in the Galapagos where the spotlight shines most bright and the stakes are at their highest. I am both excited and nervous at the prospect of what I will find.

Galapagos Islands – Eminently curious

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The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention.
– Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches

I’m eating breakfast overlooking a small port. Sea lions are playing noisily in front of me; barking at each other, splashing on and off the pontoon. One of Darwin’s iconic finches keeps cheekily returning to my bowl to steal watermelon seeds and eat them defiantly at the table, staring me straight in the eye, one eyebrow raised.

I’m definitely back in The Galapagos Islands. Coolly confident wildlife of all shapes, colours and sizes within arm’s reach at every stage of my day.

I don a snorkel and mask for my favourite Galapagos activity. Bartolome, with its small caves and big rocks spotted with corals lends itself well for snorkelling. Before long I find myself floating above a family of sea lions swirling underneath and around me. One particular sea lion comes up to my level and has a good look at my face. He blows some bubbles and then swoops back down to dance with his friends. I’d like to think that he recognises me from when I visited last year.

Deeper in the ocean, beyond the sea lions are some slow moving parrot fish, sting rays resting on the seabed and a couple of large but placid Galapagos reef sharks. The wonders don’t cease when I lift my head to get my bearings and find myself looking at a reef rock, on which are perched Marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs, three penguins, a heron and two Blue-Footed Boobies, all completely unperturbed by my emergence.

I bob for a while watching more boobies and some pelicans diving for fish. With bright blue feet, a mating dance straight from the ministry of silly walks, and a name that derives from the Spanish for ‘clown’, it is little wonder that people find it hard to take the blue footed booby seriously. That being said, they’re a creature of fascination, you’ll be surprised how long you can gaze at them and their peculiar rituals.

All of a sudden two lightning quick penguins about the height of my forearm startled me. Having pushed their beaks inquisitively towards my head mounted GoPro, they retreat bemused and a little bashful, before continuing their drag race.

 

Despite Charles Darwin only spending 5 weeks in the Galapagos Islands, of the mammoth 248 week voyage of HMS Beagle, his experience on the islands unearthed a far greater significance than imagined. The Galapagos simply cannot disappoint. Its wildlife cannot disappoint. Galapagos wildlife is indeed ‘eminently curious’ and not only deserve, but they do in fact command your attention.

Ecuador and Galapagos: The Land that Time Forgot

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No glossy travel brochure, no TV documentary, not even the fulsome description of friends’ visits, can prepare you for the extraordinary and emotional experience of the Galapagos Islands.

The uniqueness and drama of the animal and plant species, and our accessibility to them is the differentiator from any other experience, including safaris. The fact that man is not (now) a predator to these bizarre and colourful creatures, means that we can walk among them without them shying away, keeping only a deferential “personal space” between us and them. And I use the word “deferential” purposely, because the Galapagos Islands instil a sense of open-mouthed wonder of being somewhere very special and important on our planet.

 

Just about everyone knows of the good fortune that Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands, putting both on the map, so to speak, This happy encounter advanced mankind’s understanding of our world, albeit at the expense of the creationist doctrines of the Church. While we may now have a better comprehension of the origin of species everywhere, we must surely pay closer attention to the alarming peril of extinction of hundreds of species of animals and plants globally. Many of these endangered species are unique to the Galapagos only 12,000 or so pairs of waved albatross, and precariously small populations of Galapagos Penguin, Galapagos Petrel, Galapagos Fur Seal, Galapagos Sea Lion, Marine Iguana, Land Iguana, Leatherback Turtle, and the Flightless Cormorant. The Giant Tortoise, famed for the recent extinction of the Pinta Island sub-species with the death of its one survivor, Lonesome George, is also native to the Seychelles and so not endemic. These animals can survive without food or water for six months or more through fat deposits and a water bladder next to the lungs, and this made them targets for the whaling ships of yesteryear for live meat on extended voyages. The species is still threatened, and successful breeding programmes for the Giant Tortoise and Land Iguana, among others, are recovering the population to an upward trend.

These Islands may appear idyllic and abundant with wildlife, but the environment is extremely hostile. Ironically, this hostility has emphasised natural selection in progress across the many isolated and environmentally different Islands, with many intermediate sub-species dying off in the harsh conditions, leaving the now unrelated extremes of new species.

 

The Galapagos Islands are 500 miles west of the coast of Ecuador, above a volcanic hot-spot which continually forms new Islands to the west, as the whole archipelago drifts with the tectonic plates 7cm per annum to the east. Apart from this fiery creation, what makes the flora and fauna unique is the location of the Islands at the confluence of three deep-water ocean currents: the Cromwell Current from Asia eastwards towards South America, the South Equatorial Current from South America westwards towards Asia, and the Humboldt Current from the Antarctic northwards up the west coast of South America. This tenuous balance of temperatures that gives the Islands a climate to encourage their flora and fauna, can be destroyed by that unfortunate misnomer, El Niño, the Christ-Child. This warm water system from Central America periodically exerts itself to increase the water temperatures around the Islands. Together with other factors, the indications are that 2014-15 could be the most destructive El Niño year of our lifetime, and the potential is there for the archipelago ocean temperatures to rise higher than 80 degrees F. The dying-off of marine plants, plankton, and coral at these temperatures devastates the food of many species. If this is a bad El Niño year, 60%-80% of sea-lions, seals, and marine iguanas could be wiped out in a single year.

Our ship was the M.V. Eclipse, an explorer ship turned very successfully to the cruise market with 24 cabins and a crew and team of naturalist guides of the highest professional standard. They also knew how to have fun! This was a very efficiently-run operation, with Panga boats (RIBS) scuttling back and forth to the Islands for wet-landings, dry-landings, and deep-water snorkel dives with twelve passengers and a guide each. The 7-day cruise took us to Santa Fe, San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela, Santa Cruz, and Espanola among others, with a couple of landings and dives on each of these very different volcanic Islands.

We were fortunate to have the naturalist, geologist, and photographer, Jonathan Green, on our cruise as a guide and photography coach. A charming and inspirational man with a very constructive and encouraging manner with our snap-happy crowd. If my photographs have improved over my last travelogue, you know who to credit! I have quite a few photos to sort through (think a couple of thousand!) which I will whittle down to a few dozen that I can share with you all later. In the meantime, I am whetting your appetites in this travelogue with a few photos representing this extraordinary fauna.

Jonathan is a leading member of the Galapagos Whale-Shark Project, which is tagging these peaceful, threatened, 17 metre giants to learn more of their life-cycle and devise ways to protect them. Current sightings around the north of the Galapagos archipelago comprise over 99% females and may seem to indicate that they journey there to give birth. Their journey around the world is an enigma, with tracking suggesting a route that follows the junction of the tectonic plates, before an unexplained disappearance of the majority off the coast of Peru with their satellite tracking devices attachment cables severed.

These awesome creatures need our protection, but the Galapagos Whale-Shark Project is so seriously under-funded that it cannot even afford to host an all important informational website. Many of the naturalists and scientists like Jonathan end up working for part-pay just to keep the research going. The satellite-tracking devices which cost several thousand dollars each for an all-in cost of equipment, tagging dives, satellite rental time and so on. Please take a look at this article by Jonathan from the Huffington Post and, if you feel moved to do so, I encourage you to consider a donation to this important project at www.whalesharkappeal.co.uk. Whatever the amount, it will make a huge difference in this all important potential El Niño year when there is the opportunity to gather significant new data.

A client’s perspective following a holiday to the Galapagos Islands with Steppes Travel.
Written by Robin Barrett.

Sailing the Galapagos

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Our yacht spent today moored off the island of Genovesa, the most northeastern island of the archipelago, while we took panga excursions to go and explore. I have to say, this has been my favourite island.

Snorkelling and kayaking in Darwin Bay was so exciting.The bay is a sunken caldera – perfectly round with a gap at one end, so you’re literally snorkelling along the inside wall of a volcano; mind blowing! Sea lions and fur seals were relaxing on the rocks, along with pelicans, iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs and birds. We kayaked first, getting close to the face of the wall, nearly bumping into a sealion dozing on a rock; needless to say he didn’t look too pleased.

Snorkelling next, with pelicans diving down just a few feet away from us as they fished, bobbing back up with mouths full of water and hopefully fish. It was fun trying to time yourself with their dives so that you move your view from over to under the water to see them make their catch. Also quite challenging because of their speedy freefall dives, but fun when it worked. I wished I had an under-water camera, not just for this but also for the myriad of colourful fish below me, as well as the ray and shark that we encountered.

With other snorkelling trips providing turtles and penguins to boot, there’s a lot going on to photograph in the Galapagos waters! We had a gentle hike in the afternoon starting with a wet landing on a white sandy coral beach with four sea lions relaxing, not at all bothered that we were close nearby. We continued over lava, through low bushes and past hoards of nesting frigate birds displaying their bizarre courting ritual, as well as gulls and red footed boobies. We walked up along a lagoon gently filling up with the incoming tide where we saw stingrays and mullet fish swimming around in the clear, shallow water. Up the hill to a beautiful viewpoint we could see the whole bay in the evening light. It was a lovely day, very active, but with enough time to relax. Definitely ready for some sleep, up early for another adventurous day tomorrow!

An Eco visit to the Galapagos

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This was my first visit to the Galapagos in a few years and I was delighted to see that the islands had changed little and were still as beautiful and fascinating as they had been.

Tourism has changed over recent months to focus on land based stays, with the arrival of wonderful properties like the Galapagos Safari Camp and the new 15 day itinerary regulated by the Galapagos National Park. During my time on the islands I was lucky enough to stay at the Safari camp and thought this eco-camp offered all the benefits of an African tented camp and a great view of the island.

During the rest of the stay on the islands I embarked upon a 3 night Galapagos cruise onboard La Pinta teamed with a stay at the Finch Bay Eco Hotel (a short water taxi from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz). I was looking forward to my stay as one of my clients described it as a piece of paradise. Whilst walking down the path from the small pier with Marine Iguanas to greet me, I couldn’t help but agree!

With a love of diving I was keen to see what all the fuss was about, so I took a dive boat from Santa Cruz to what can only be described as quite simply the most incredible dive spot ever. Under the water I was surrounded by a shiver of Hammerhead sharks that seemed to be as inquisitive about me as I was about them. There were also White-tipped and Black-tipped Galapagos sharks looking up at me from below, whilst sea lions weaved through rocks to the left of me, blowing bubbles and nudging me and to the right a bale of turtles were floating by and inspecting my dive equipment! Such an assault on the senses.

My itinerary included Espanola; which was a delight. I got to witness the huge Waved Albatross with its eggs, Galapagos Hawks and Blue-footed Boobies – there seemed to be something in the air as they were all choosing that moment to mate. Next I headed to the island of San Cristobal and was delighted to explore the new visitor sites that were recently opened. I also took the chance to get back in the water for some snorkelling, which mostly involved being bunted by sea lions frolicking between me and the rocks and following turtles as they gracefully glided through the water – what an experience!

I also visited the new all singing, all dancing cocoon in the clouds as it is often referred to, Mashpi Lodge, which quite simply offers a ‘bubble’ in which to explore the cloud forest. It is home to orchids, magnificent butterflies and striking birds plus options to take a cable car and air bikes (still to be completed). There is a hummingbird feeding station en route to the lodge along with a fascinating butterfly house which has been a study point for some time. There is also a camera trap project in operation with a resident researcher.

My time on the islands, witnessing the new conservation policies in action inspired me to continue to help these precious islands and see them conserved for the future. At Steppes we only work together with reputable boat operators and hoteliers who have eco credentials in the form of a specific ISO standard such as Smart Voyager.

To talk further with Sarah about her trip or to gain further advice about planning your holiday to the Galapagos please call her on 01285 880 980.

The legacy of Lonesome George

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Clichés like “his kind will never be seen again” are often the mainstay of obituaries. In the case of Lonesome George such platitudes are perfectly justified.

With his passing, so follows the demise of the Pinta Island Tortoise, an animal once so prolific, sailors passing through the Galapagos archipelago, thought nothing of filling their larders with the beasts as convenient and much needed protein for their long voyages at sea.

Scientists estimate that George was about 100 years old – a “good innings” for most yet a premature passing in this case, as life expectancy for a Giant Tortoise is about 200. Such was his celebrity status George was an ambassador for the Galapagos National Park, a poster boy for the Galapagos Conservation Trust and a symbol for endangered species everywhere. His plight resonated beyond the realms of biologists and his inability to procreate made headlines all over the world, such were the tragic consequences of his condition.

While George’s impotence was well documented, the symbolism of his untimely death is potent beyond measure. Mention the word ‘extinction’ and, for most, thoughts of the Dodo immediately come to mind. The term has almost a historic ring to it, something that happened long ago, consigned to dusty encyclopaedias. George’s death is a reminder that the threat of extinction is real and immediate for a large number of the world’s animals. On the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species there are currently 3,947 species considered “critically endangered”, starting with Aaptosyax Grypus (Mekong Giant Salmon Carp) and ending with Zyzomys Pedunculatus (Central Rock Rat).

There is no Mekong Giant Salmon Carp named George, kept in an aquarium and encouraged to mate with an unseemly line of female Salmon Carps and it is unlikely that obituaries will flood the internet when the last remaining Central Rock Rat draws its terminal breath. Yet what about the Sumatran Orangutan, or the Black Rhino – will the world take note when these animals move from the “critically endangered” list to the list marked “extinct”?

The finality of Lonesome George’s death is a poignant reminder that man’s actions have very real consequences. If we don’t take stock and increase efforts to conserve endangered animals worldwide, then obituaries for species rather than individuals will become commonplace.

Galapagos Islands – The Great Tourism Debate

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On Sunday 10 June, The Observer published a piece written by Carol Cadwalladr on the negative effects of tourism in the Galapagos. You can read the article by clicking on the above link and below is the letter I wrote in response to this article:

“I wonder if at any time Carole Cadwalladr felt the slightest tinge of hypocrisy, condemning tourism in the Galapagos while she frolicked with sea-lions and enjoyed the hospitality of the very hotels and tour operators she is so keen to vilify? I should state immediately that I am not an impartial observer in all of this as I manage the tour operator that organised and partially sponsored Carole Cadwalladr’s travel arrangements to the Galapagos. While I am very disappointed that Carole decided to write a polemic against tourism in the Galapagos I welcome the debate her piece has aroused and agree with some of the points she has raised. Tighter control and regulation of tourism in the Galapagos are undoubtedly required however this must be done in a manner that still allows tourism to help local people realise the economic potential of their natural habitat and the wildlife that calls it home. “If it pays it stays” is the mantra of conservation and with this pragmatic approach, tourism is crucial to the future of not only the Galapagos but also numerous other primary wildlife destinations around the world. Remove tourism and the compulsion to conserve and protect no longer has its driving force. Of course, there is a sense of balance required and the problem in the Galapagos is that land based tourism has been allowed to develop unregulated. This has not only had a direct environmental impact but has also increased the tourist capacity of the Galapagos Islands for which it does not have the infrastructure. The sooner something is done to curb this development and cap the number of tourists permitted on land based holidays the better. Rather than encouraging travellers to abandon their plans for visiting the Galapagos, I hope Cadwalladr’s piece makes travellers think carefully about how they should travel to the Galapagos. Look beyond the greenwash and choose a tour operator that pays more than just lip service to sustainable travel; choose a boat based trip over land based in order to minimize your impact on the fragile infra-structure of some of the islands; make sure you , a kite-mark of environmental best practice; if you want to spend time on land, chose a hotel like Finch Bay Eco Hotel that adheres to strict environmental guidelines. Steppes Discovery is a Gold Corporate member of Galapagos Conservation Trust and in the past 5 years has donated £30,000 to GCT’s projects on the islands as well as signing up all of our clients for membership to the organisation. In addition, in the last 5 years we have donated £20,000 to the Charles Darwin Foundation’s Herbarium project, which works to combat invasive plant species. If the Observer feels so strongly that tourism is “wrecking the wonders of the Galapagos” perhaps they would be prepared to donate the actual cost of their journalists’ trip to the islands, to the projects Steppes Discovery already supports?”

Needless to say, The Observer has not put its hand in its pocket…

If you have an opinion on tourism in the Galapagos then the Galapagos Conservation Trust want to hear it. They are currently hosting a debate on their website where you can post your comments – click on the link above.

Charles Darwin Foundation respond to The Observer

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A letter written in response to a piece published in the Observer on June 10th, written by Carol Cadwalladr on the negative effects of tourism in the Galapagos.

You can read the article by clicking on the above link and below is a letter written in response to the article, by Swen Lorenz, Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation:

“Your recent article about the Galápagos Islands (“Galápagos menaced by tourist invasion”, Sunday 10th June 2012 by Caroline Cadwalladr) contains too many factual errors and misconceptions to comment on all of them.

E.g., Felipe Cruz did not speak to Ms Cadwalladr as the Director of Technical Assistance of the Charles Darwin Foundation. He had clearly pointed out that he is currently on leave of absence from our organisation and instead spoke to Ms Cadwalladr as a consultant of the London-based Galápagos Conservation Trust (GCT).

Ms Cadwalladr did not want to take the time to look at the many aspects where great success has been achieved by conservation efforts in the Galápagos. As a matter of fact, the Galápagos have been the location of some of the world’s most successful conservation projects, and Ecuador is the world’s first country to grant rights to nature in its constitution. The very problems that the article mentions have long been identified and are actively being worked on:

– Protective barriers have been erected around the airport to prevent iguanas from entering the airfield
– An education campaign is asking drivers of cars to pay close attention to birds on the roads
– Enormous efforts are going into developing and improving models for responsible eco-tourism

Organisations that are part of these efforts include the Galápagos National Park, the Consejo de Gobierno de Galápagos, the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Heritage, NGOs such as WWF, and the Charles Darwin Foundation, as well as GCT, to name just a few.

Unfortunately, Ms Cadwalladr simply chose to ignore much of the information she was given about all this by our staff. Even right after her visit, I sent a message to our partner organisation, Galápagos Conservation Trust, to complain about the unprofessional and disrespectful behaviour of Ms Cadwalladr. The quotes she uses in her article are also partially erroneous, and have been taken out of context. Ms Cadwalladr launched personal attacks on staff and partners, some of whom had taken time out of their personal diary to provide – in good faith about The Guardian’s reputation – their view about the Galápagos Islands.

The most saddening part is that the kind of one-sided reporting that Ms Cadwalladr engaged in directly contributes to the problems of the islands. As Sir David Attenborough succinctly summed up, without tourism the Galápagos would not exist anymore. Our institution’s position is that tourists should visit, but they should do so responsibly. A loss of tourism income would be catastrophic to the conservation measures taken for the islands by the Government of Ecuador and by the many organisations that are working on behalf of the archipelago.

Last but not least, I strongly object – both personally as well as in my role as Executive Director of the Charles Darwin Foundation – to the inhabitants of the islands being portrayed in the way Ms Cadwalladr’s article sets out. Every day, countless individuals living in Galápagos work passionately, tirelessly and often at great personal sacrifices, to deal with the challenges of the island. I am convinced that by working with the population of the islands (and the Government of Ecuador), solutions to the current challenges can be found.

It is people like Ms Cadwalladar – who come to Galápagos to further their own career and ambitions, but without giving anything back – that are the real problem. I have known The Guardian as a source of balanced, factual information. Unfortunately, its readers have also suffered from this slanted article, as they have not been given a complete picture.

Finally, I would like to see an official correction published in your newspaper because of the reputational damage that the Charles Darwin Foundation as advisor of the government of Ecuador has suffered as a consequence of your one-sided, erroneous reporting.

With best regards,
Swen Lorenz
Executive Director, Charles Darwin Foundation”

Darwin Finches show evolution in action

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Daphne Major Island, one of the most restricted islands in the Galapagos, is home to two species of Finches. It was whilst studying Finches that Charles Darwin came up with his theory of Evolution. Originally the island was populated by a medium ground finch which fed on large and small seeds. Then, in the early 80s, a breeding population of large ground finches arrived on the island.

The result was that the medium ground finches were now competing with the large ground finches for the limited food source. The large ground finches feed solely on the larger seeds of the Tribulus plant and are able to break open the seedpods and eat the seeds faster than the medium ground finch. Meanwhile the medium ground finches with smaller beaks can get to the smaller seeds whilst the medium ground finches with larger beaks have to compete with the stronger large ground finches for the bigger seeds.

A study by Peter Grant from Princeton University over the past three decades has revealed that the medium ground finches with larger beaks have been dying off and that the species has now evolved smaller beaks so as to not compete with the large ground finch which now reside on the island. This is a perfect example of evolution in action re-enforcing Darwin’s theory 175 years after he visited the islands himself.

The Galapagos home to Pirates of the Sky, Wrestling Dragons and Giants of the Ocean

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When packing my things at home I couldn’t quite believe I was going to be stepping foot on these strange and fascinating islands and having a large fear of the sea I was nervous and even a little panicky. However, I decided this was the real trip to face my fears and to go alone and brave the waters to see what would come forward from the depths of the ocean.

28 hours later I arrived late in the night at Quito, I was exhausted and noted no client should ever have to do this journey with two stops in Colombia! In the new boutique hotel ‘Casa Gangotena’ which overlooks the San Francisco square, I woke up to see Quito had cleaned up well and I couldn’t wait to see more of the city.

Having read about Quito for the past year I was very much looking forward to seeing the city and the walk around the cobbled streets didn’t disappoint. It seemed every corner I turned there was a church, cathedral or prominent historic governmental building. Walking into the Compania de Jesus church was like stepping into a Buddhist temple in Thailand as it was dripping from the ceiling with gold leaf. It was very grand and drastically different to the Cathedral just around the corner where I learnt a little more about the Spanish Inquisition’s cunning tricks to convert the indigenous people of Ecuador to Catholicism; one tactic involved painting a guinea pig in the painting of the last supper (Ecuador’s national dish)! All in all I could have spent a few days walking around the city which is segmented into the old city and modern city, personally I prefer the old part as the character here is so rich.

Up and out of the hotel by 7am the following morning, I was in that hum of drowsy excitement – I was going to the Galapagos Islands!! I still couldn’t quite believe my luck as we were boarding the plane and before I knew it we were at Baltra airport, but I was brought back down to reality and waited for what seemed like an eternity to get through customs, pen and paper still seemed to be the system for this process.

A short bus ride away we climbed aboard the Panga boat (a dingy with a motor!) and reached the Eclipse which is a beautiful boat. Sitting eating lunch and looking through the window seeing the Galapagos Islands, I wondered what I might see in the next five days (trying hard to push the Jaws theme tune out of my head). Later on in the afternoon we reached Las Bachas beach on Santa Cruz island, stepping onto the white sands I took my flip flops off straight away and looked up to see Blue Footed Boobies standing on the rocky black edge. We walked on the black hardened lava ground which was rough and rather painful on my bare feet, I could see why the spiky lava ground was called AA lava!

Bright orangey-red Sally Light footed crabs suddenly appeared around the corner and against the black ground they looked even more vivid and striking. Our guide walked along with us explaining how these funny looking crabs were actually cannibals. I was starting to see the islands were a hard place to survive on. Approaching a small lagoon we came across a sun bathing Marine Iguana and a Pink Flamingo sifting for tiny crustaceans in the water. The flamingo’s pink colour is caused from eating these little shrimps which are rich in the pigments called carotenoids.

Back onboard I felt ready to collapse into bed, what a great introduction to the islands. There was a snorkelling trip the next day and I was hoping I would have the courage to brave the waters.

We woke up to see Puerto Egas, Santiago Island, and on the panga ride out to the island we passed by a feeding pod of dolphins! I had never seen wild dolphins so close up before, their speed was impressive as they kept up with us. On the island we were greeted by lots of sea lions who were lazing about on the beach. We walked around seeing Galapagos mocking birds and Fur Seals with their pups which were so sweet and playful. Whilst watching the seals a Galapagos Hawk swooped down just in front of us, I had been hoping to see one and then moments later a second hawk joined him. On the way back some people went for a snorkel trip but with the Bull Sealion patrolling the beach I decided to hold back this time.

Later in the afternoon we reached Bartolmé Island, this was my chance to go snorkelling! Writing about it even now still gets my adrenaline going. We boarded the panga boats kitted out in our wetsuits and went out towards the Pinnacle Rock. The guide and driver started to get excited and then I realised it was because there were sharks around us. I was so scared I started feeling sick- what was I doing? Why was I here?! The driver explained calmly that the sharks lived in this bay so I could get off round the corner to join the others if I’d prefer – in my bizarre panic stricken logic this made sense – yes the sharks would stay in the bay!

So round the corner we went and counting down three, two, one we plunged into the cool waters. Whilst bobbing around in the sea trying to get used to the snorkel mask my guide appeared next to me holding my arm to say, ‘Jen just stay calm… there is a shark underneath you’. Out of sight, out of mind was my immediate reaction – again panic logic! I kept my head above the water and clinging onto my new friend asked how big it was, she replied to say I think you’ll be ok… so with every ounce of courage in me I lowered my head into the water. A two meter long black-tipped reef shark was resting in the shallows, it turned in an almost cat like elegant motion and swam off into the ocean.

Ha! Haahaa! I did it, but I couldn’t breath properly, sea water coming into my snorkel and I couldn’t let go of my friend, but I did it! The rest of the snorkelling trip was actually one of the best I had on the trip, I saw shawls of fish pass us by – Parrot Fish, Angel Fish, Puffa Fish and a huge Chocolate Chip Starfish. An hour in the water felt like only minutes and then we were heading back to the boat. I had really surprised myself maybe I liked the water after all, no that was going too far! I did however brave the waters every day I was there.

Every island was so different and I could go on for a long time about how amazing it was, but instead l will just leave you with stories of my last days snorkel trip. On the Wednesday afternoon we realised this was the last time we may ever see the Galapagos Islands.

Around Punta Vicente Roca off Isabela Island to our amazement we saw a group of the rare Mola Mola fish (also known as Sun Fish) pass by the boat and quickly getting into our wet suits hoped we might see some in the water! Unfortunately the water was too murky but we found a spot in the sun light which was teeming with Pacific Green Turtles, there were so many there I had to be careful to hover in the water so as not to touch them. Some of the braver members of our group went off to explore a nearby cave, I started to swim along but in the shadowy water I couldn’t see anything so I stayed with the others to watch the turtles and penguins which were zipping passed with effortless speed and flightless cormorants diving down to fish. I was so lucky to be there. We looked up to see our group were quite far away so we decided to catch them up. Swimming close together felt safer in the murky waters, this was the ocean after all – anything could come out of those dark deep waters.

Our guide called us back on the boat and then she called us again a little more forcefully, ‘guys get back on the panga there’s an Orca coming!’ What!?! I practically ran out of the water with my flippers on! We all got back on quickly and turned the panga round and moved a little closer to where the Orca had been spotted, waiting and holding our breath, the Orca broke the water’s surface and brought its head out of the water right next to us in the little Panga boat! It then moved on to the same place we were in moments ago with the turtles. I caught myself repeating ‘this is so amazing…’ as we crept along following the Orca around the rocks.

I can honestly say that I have never been to such an exhilarating place which is brimming over with wildlife both on land and in the waters. I would suggest the Galapagos Islands to everyone and as long as you are fit and steady on your feet there is no reason not to go.

We offer trips on a range of vessels and also hotel and camp options on the islands, so if my trip there inspires you for a holiday to the Galapagos we would be more than happy to discuss different options with you.

Tree lions and Booby traps in the Galapagos

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The journalist Chris Haslam travelled with Steppes Discovery on a Galapagos Islands cruise and his write-up below featured in the Sunday Times:

Something is stirring off to starboard. It could be dolphins rounding up yellowfin tuna, whose dorsals break the surface like a summer shower. It could be a brite whale, feeding on krill, or a giant marbled ray, tossing itself skyward to rid itself of parasites. It might be a bull sea lion looking for love, or a feeding frenzy of hammerheads. Captain Pepe shrugs and heads back to the wheelhouse.

“Could be any of the above,” he concedes. “You’re in the Galapagos now.”

I’m aboard the Diamante, a 110ft brigantine schooner chartered by Steppes Discovery for its 10-day voyage around this extraordinary archipelago. I have nine fellow passengers, an easy mix of couples and singles, old and young, and though we’ve only been here an hour or so, a general feeling of wonder is already making us goggle-eyed and slack-jawed.

“Get used to it, my friends,” suggests Bolivar Sanchez, our guide, gathering us together in the Diamante’s saloon. Here, he lays down the national-park law: do not touch the animals; do not let the animals touch you; stay on the path. Breakfast 0700, lunch 1230, dinner 1900. Between those hours, we will hike, swim, snorkel, kayak and take rides in the Zodiac. We will see birds, fish, dolphins, whales, sea lions and many marine iguanas. Maybe, he whispers, we will see tree lions.

A ripple of doubt sweeps the saloon like an Ecuadorian wave. Field manuals are thumbed, memories racked, guidebooks consulted. Tree lions? No more questions, says Bolivar.

On this first afternoon, we cross a few hundred yards of ocean in the panga, the local term for the Zodiac, to North Seymour Island. Scarlet Sally Lightfoot crabs scatter as we step ashore, climbing over burnished boulders of black lava. They tumble down into water so clear that we can watch parrotfish grazing 15ft below.

Charles Darwin never visited this sunburnt isle, just 12 minutes south of the equator, but if he had, he would have seen boobies. Hundreds of them, lining the narrow trail like blue-wellied penitents, with something Chaplinesque about their big feet and sad, stereoscopic eyes.

“We don’t know why boobies’ feet are blue,” admits Bolivar. “Their name comes from the Spanish bobo — fool — and this tree, my friends, is Parkinsonia aculeata.” He points to a thorny bush, bright green in the arid cactus landscape, with a pile of bleached bones at its viciously barbed base. “The babies fly into it and die,” he says, lifting a fledgling wing from the spikes. “We call this bush the Boobie Trap.”

Tree lions? Boobie traps? Bolivar leads us on through a lava desert to a breeding colony of enormous black birds with bright-red throats.

“Magnificent frigates, my friends,” he announces. These birds lack waterproofing and can’t fish, so most of their food is stolen from other species. Bolivar calls this kleptopara- sitism, and I watch dozens of males trying to pull the birds by inflating their beachball-sized gullets and strutting their stuff.

Our attention is distracted by a fat yellow land iguana, belly-down in the dust like a leftover dinosaur. He poses defiantly for photos, his scaly skin falling in keratin-spiked folds across his powerful forelegs. Suddenly, he is old news. Bolivar has spotted another, as big as a labrador, crashing through the brush beyond, and as we scurry along the path, we meet six locals kicking a football through the forbidden zone.

“Off-duty military,” seethes Bolivar when they’ve gone. “This is a nesting site, and they should know better. Now you know why we didn’t let the army go after the goats.”

Ah, yes, the goats. The goats arrived when man first stepped off the path in the Galapagos. They were put ashore by whalers, survey ships and pirates to provide protein for the future. Now they act as if they own the place. Isabela alone is home to an estimated 500,000, and their effect on endemic species is devastating.

A huge Galapagos tortoise, his ancient shell a yard across, rests in the meagre shade of a denuded shrub. Not a single leaf within goat’s reach remains. Every bush in sight has been similarly stripped, and the noble reptile looks wistfully upwards, wondering where his next meal is coming from. It’s like a lesson from Aesop, and a dramatic demonstration of the vulnerability of this continually amazing biosphere.

We head for the shore, where young sea lions ride perfect waves beneath the setting sun. Their mothers, aunts and siblings sprawl in the warm sand at our feet, while the dominant male patrols the rocks. He may be the daddy now, but managing his harem is a full-time job and he has no time to eat. In two weeks, he will be so weak that he’ll be easily usurped, and another bull will own the beach.

Gazing seaward, I am suddenly overawed by the pri-mordial splendour of this emerging environment. Pelicans soar like pterodactyls and smoking volcanic islands float across the horizon like backdrops from The Lost World. From this fertile ocean, new land has emerged, still hot from the oven — and in its mineral soil, pioneer plants are struggling to put down roots. The cool water teems with life, but untamed nature here is wild and savage, and that’s what 80,000 visitors come to see every year.

Beneath the ecofriendly sails of the Diamant, our energetic guide is now trying to persuade us to go snorkelling in shark-infested waters. They come here to clean up, he says, and they’re harmless when going about their beauty regime. Most of the time.

Captain Pepe smiles wickedly and drops off the side of the panga. Like a half-witted bait fish, I follow. In seconds, I’ve lost him in a maze of undersea lava tubes with a multicoloured cast straight out of Finding Nemo. When I locate him again, he is pointing excitedly to a cave 10ft below. I suck air and dive, steadying myself on the cavern’s lip to peer inside. A pair of white-tipped sharks glare back before barging past me with the disdain of white-tied gourmets passing a discarded kebab.

Back at the panga, I’m dizzy with adrenaline and disbelief. Bolivar steers the inflatable into a mangrove lagoon, cuts the engine and drifts into an inlet.

A thick trunk leaves the water at a 45-degree angle, and a good 8ft up it lie a pair of dozing sea lions. Deeper in the woods perch a dozen more, precariously comfortable. It’s evolution in action, and Bolivar can’t help grinning.

“Tree lions,” he announces.

Unbelievable.

Please call 01285 643 333 for further details

A walk to the end of the path – Sierra Negra Volcano

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A new day and a new adventure in the Galapagos. To make a change from my coastal adventures, my guide and I headed inland. Taking the only road, right to the end – we began the walk walking to see the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela Island.

It was cloudy and misty, when we started, but I was assured it was often like this on the South side but it would clear up as we got round to the northern side. I wasn’t convinced, it looked like it was set for the day, but off I went anyway. Sure enough as we reached the top and started around the edge of the volcano, the cloud started to lift. It was rather eerie watching the clouds move to reveal a very large black hole. The caldera is the second largest in the world at 9km in diameter. The volcano is still active and last erupted in 2005, what remains is black volcanic lava. It looks like lumps of broken up tarmac. It is hard to get a sense of scale when you are standing on the edge looking down 200m at this lifeless black expanse below.

You can walk around the edge for a while before dropping down the northern side to walk onto Volcan Chico. This is a totally different landscape, this is a series of smaller craters and a huge lava field. Here, you can walk over the lava to see huge lava tunnels and vent holes with steam rising from them. Volcan Chico last erupted 30 years ago, you can see very clearly where the rivers of lava flowed and then just froze in time. It is a bizarre but fascinating landscape. Reaching the end of the trail you have wonderful views back over the small craters and lava field.

Looking north on a clear day you can see both the East and West coast of the island as well as the other three volcanoes and nearby Fernandina Island. This is as far inland as you can walk on Isabela, the rest of the island is uninhabited and inaccessible, a wild and rugged landscape that is still very much alive and still growing. It is a long walk, but definitely rewarding in terms of incredible scenery, you are unlikely to get so close to in other areas of the world. Another really great day in the Galapagos, a fascinating insight as to how these island have formed and evolved.

Galapagos Islands suffer minor damage during tsunami

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On the 11 March the terrible 8.9 magnitude earthquake which hit Japan set tsunami waves out across the Pacific Ocean. Sat at my desk my thoughts turned towards the Galapagos Islands which lie right on the path of the waves and how that would affect the very special wildlife and communities on the islands.

The Galapagos Islands are deep-ocean islands which have risen out of the seabed due to volcanic activity. This means the waves grow less than if the islands were surrounded by shallow waters. Despite this in Pto. Ayora, the main town on the Galapagos, a 6ft wave surged some 200m into town. This surge inflicted minor damage on coastal buildings and our friends and partners at the Darwin Research Station have reported damage to one of their laboratories which is located right on the waterfront. The surge crashed into the lab and damaged some furniture and equipment.

Local residents, including, Lonesome George and the other Giant Tortoises at the Charles Darwin Station were evacuated to the highlands and were safe.

Evaluation to the various islands is still ongoing but it seems that Santa Cruz and San Cristobal were the most affected islands. Most other sites around the archipelago fared much better. There is some concern that this is iguana nesting season and a lot of iguana eggs may have been washed away thereby affecting this year’s iguana birth rates.

Hunting the lost Beagle

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One of the world’s leading marine archaeologists, Robert Prescott of St Andrews University, has discovered what he believes to be the final resting place of the HMS Beagle.

His research using geophysical techniques with ground-penetrating radar has located the remains near Potton in Essex on the River Roach. This is known to be where the HMS Beagle was last used as a deterrent to smugglers before she was sold for £525 to the local scrap merchants. Using timber sample testing he hopes to confirm this is Charles Darwin’s famous vessel on which he explored the South American coast and the Galapagos Islands. Darwin spent 5 years from 1831 observing the wildlife of the region and the variations within species to come up with his evolution theories which he published in “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.

Why not join us in the Galapagos on a cruise tailored to what you would like to explore across the islands.

Underwater Adventure in the Lava Tubes

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Wow! What an incredible morning in the Galapagos. This being my second trip, I thought I had seen and experienced most of what these islands had to offer, but I couldn’t have been more wrong!

A boat ride from Porto Villamil on Isabela Island is an area known as the Los Tuneles (The Tunnels). This truly amazing underwater lava field is a maze of crystal clear pools, some with arches of black volcanic rock and covered with large cactus. With the water so calm and still, we swam in the pools with dozens of Green Turtles and Eagle Rays graceful gliding through the water – it was like a giant aquarium. Surely, nothing could beat this!

I was wrong again – we moved locations to try a spot of snorkelling. Exploring the different pools, I swam with the turtles and a few White Tip Reef Sharks, many more of which were sleeping under the rocks. In an area of mangrove I then saw the most incredible thing I think I have ever seen – seahorses. In one area there was a solitary sea horse swimming in the reeds close to the bottom, it was hard to believe this was real, a real seahorse in front of my eyes. It is the thing of fairy-tales. If this wasn’t enough we then saw a second one with its tail wrapped around an underwater tree trunk, I stayed watching it for some time, transfixed. It was hard to move on – I’m pretty sure this will be a once in a lifetime experience.

It seems that is the beauty and charm of the Galapagos Islands, you think you have seen everything and then it goes and surprises you again with something more incredible and wonderful. Truly amazing and unique.

Just a regular afternoon in the Galapagos

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I flew into Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island today. The largest Island and one of the youngest in the Galapagos. After leaving my bags at the hotel, I jumped in a small boat with my guide and off we went to explore this paradise.

Five minutes from leaving the shore I was face to face with a Galapagos Penguin and Blue Footed Boobie as they sat sharing the same rock. Setting foot onto the small island of Los Tintoreras, we literally had to step over huge numbers of Marine Iguanas just lounging around soaking up the sun. It is almost as if they have all been put there just for the tourists, obviously this isn’t the case, they are in their natural surroundings and have no fear of humans so just sit and watch as you pass by.

After a short walk we then got into the water and were immediately surrounded by playful sea-lions, blowing bubbles and diving all around us. They followed us the whole time swimming round and trying to get us to play, like a couple of young children having fun in the water. We also saw two green turtles gliding effortlessly along, numerous fish and a couple of sting rays flapping like serene birds in the water. Not a bad introduction to this wonderful island, all this in just one afternoon, as my guide said “this is just the way it is in the Galapagos”.

Up close in the Galapagos

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Having spent the best part of a week in the saddle, we changed direction completely and boarded the Sagitta for our seven-day voyage around the Galapagos Islands. Take it from me – it was just breathtaking.

The islands are not just a national park, they are also a World Heritage Site. About 70% of the wildlife there is endemic and totally fearless. I can confidently say that we had the best insight into totally unspoiled marine and bird life that you could ever imagine.

It’s hardly surprising that the local guides are very protective of their environment. As there are so many different species of wildlife on the islands and so many of them have very few inhibitions, we were able to get up, close and personal.

Needless to say, I have photo albums literally dripping with pictures on my bookshelves at home and they all bring amazing memories to life. Perhaps my fondest memory of my trip to these islands is sitting on beach rocks, completely alone, and watching three baby sea lions coming out of the water. They didn’t just come up on to the rocks. They came and sat on my legs and lapped at the sea. We are told never to touch the animals. But if they touch you, that’s OK. I am proud to say that, at Steppes Travel, we have had many such encounters.