Friday, May 13
Smooth dull flight from LaGuardia to Miami where we amused ourselves for 90 minutes strolling the underground inside-security corridors connecting the various terminals. Mostly utilitarian cinderblock, but they tried to cheer up one stretch by painting it electric orange. Miami continues to hold the record for most unpleasant major airport in the US. On to a quite empty 7:10pm flight to Quito. The same 757 equipment, same "first class" seats (now labeled "business") but my goodness, out of nowhere came old fashioned, American Airlines service and food: experienced, professional attendants, filet mignon and hot fudge sundaes. International really is still different.
We arrived at Quito around 10pm (only one time zone change) and got smoothly through immigration and baggage. I was surprised to find the Hilton guy waiting for us with a sign; I hadn't requested a shuttle, nor given them any flight information. But it made the transfer to the very ordinary Hilton as easy as can be. Standard comfortable room, though the 9000' altitude means sleep comes slowly.
Saturday, May 14
Up and onto the, gulp, 6am shuttle right back to the airport. Quito was very quiet at that hour so we zipped along modern streets, past moderate scale concrete buildings - all boxy, very horizontal and untrimmed. Quito's high up in a bowl with higher mountains around it which explains the speed and pitch shifting of the plane last night in the clouds.
We met Maria and Dag and the group right as we got to the terminal. Usual chitchat while bags were checked and tickets gathered. Through security into comfortable - meaning clean, padded seats - departure lounge with snack bar. At last I got some tea to get the morning underway. Then we followed the zigzagging painted yellow path out to the place, directed at each turning by a TAME employee. I had my hopes up that we' be on one of the planes we passed proudly blazoned "Aero Gal," but we were directed to an Airbus with banal TAME markings. There was a brief stop in Guayaquil then on to Baltra, about a two hour flight in total. The terminal and entry to the national park was in an open-sided shed, large and well organized. We had a short bus transfer to the pier, a brief wait while we ogled and snapped a sea lion under the bench in the bus shelter, then zodiac out to the Reina Silvia, named after the Queen of Sweden by the German owners. Larry and I are ensconced in the "Owners Cabin" which is a palatial suite on the upper deck with a king sized bed, TV and CD player, loads of built-in storage drawers and cabinets, a fully stocked bar, and a private bath and shower. Tra la la.
We motored from Baltra to South Plaza Island and immediately hit the spotting jackpot with three orcas who played around the ship for ten or fifteen minutes. We got underway again, started the orientation briefing, and were called back on deck to see a right whale at hand for us. Guide Maria del Carmen has already announced that NO ONE sees whales like this on these trips. We had an excellent lunch on board, then a zodiac ride to a little pier on South Plaza Island. The island is low, and quite barren and sere; cactus and some scrubby grass the only vegetation. Apparently this is year three of a terrible drought. We were immediately introduced to a marine iguana (black) on the park welcome sign, followed by land iguanas (yellow) which live on cactus, literally lying under the plant waiting for food to drop down. We strolled slowly up a gentle hill, then along the cliff for birding. Again we had a stunning show when frigate birds, who steal food from other birds (including frigates) attacked a bird carrying a fish. The fish dropped and landed on a tiny ledge maybe twenty feet down the cliff. The frigates tried desperately to swoop in and grab the fish, but the wind currents kept blowing them off. We had maybe fifteen minutes of stunning aerial maneuvers before we had to finally continue along the ridge then back along the beach. The pier was now guarded by a large female sea lion. Maria del Carmen had the task of forcing her off by clapping and crowding her, while the rest of us followed close behind so she wouldn't just jump back on the pier.
Showers, were followed by a meet-the-crew gathering in the lounge over an electric blue welcome drink. Good dinner, then we were off to bed around 8:30. The bed was set up across the beam of the boat - and we were underway all night, crossing the equator to head to Geneovesa. It was like sleeping on a seesaw! Sometime in the middle of the night we got up and muddled the sheets around so we were sleeping along the keel of the ship and finally getting that nice rocking motion.
Sunday, May 15
Wakeup call was at 6:30, breakfast at seven, then off to the beach by 7:45. "Wet Landing" by zodiac meant simply hoping out in knee deep water and walking to the sandy beach. We arrived overnight at Genovesa Island, aka Bird Island. The first featured performers were male frigate birds with brilliant crimson sacs that inflate during the courting season. They would also squawk and preen whenever a female flew overhead. Surreal animals. Also on stage were red-footed boobies -- with turquoise blue bills -- a pure white booby, and masked boobies. The vegetation was so dry as to be almost grey. We walked over lava admiring the birds until nearly ten o'clock then back to the boat which was still anchored in the round bay of a volcanic caldera. Next event was a mild paddle around the caldera to meet the other half of the group who'd zodiac'd out for some snorkeling. I settled merely for a quick swim, but Larry snorkeled and we all zodiac'd back to the boat for lunch, kayaks streaming in our wake.
After a dry, but this time treacherous afternoon landing on lava "steps," we climbed up to the top of the island for another couple of hours admiring frigates and boobies. We had a lengthy, landmark encounter with a juvenile male booby, nicknamed "Looey" who was totally unafraid of these tourists. He blocked the path, walked over, nibbled on Dag's camera strap, posed for photos, then communed with Larry, picking at his shoelaces and striding around for close-ups. We're all sure that he'll become Looey the First, King of Ecuador!
The lava landscape was barren and striking; everything sounded -- and was -- hollow. The drought has left everything looking as it it'd been burned out. On the way back we had a brief "seal jam" when an injured or sick sea lion blocked the stairs back down. The whole group had to clamber over him. The rules are no touching, no feeding, no interference -- even to "do good." We got back to the Reina Silvia which immediately got underway which made our very welcome showers rather exciting!
Monday, May 16
The overnight voyage to Isabella was pretty bumpy, almost throwing us out of our king size bed. The deck outside our cabin was an overnight recovery room for a couple of queasy folks, but everyone seemed to be in ok form by breakfast time. We traveled back south over the equator to visit both Fernandina and Isabella islands.
Off at 7:45 for a dry landing on Isabella. This morning was perhaps more scenery than animals. Up a lava bed, then stairs, then smooth walking to a view of the saltwater Darwin Lake. On further to an outcropping with a view of two volcanoes - which mark the line of the equator. Down and back to the boat around ten followed by a lovely paddle. Maybe two or three miles along the shoreline admiring blue-footed boobies, penguins, herons, pelicans, marine iguanas (lots), and some young sea lions who came along with us porpoising and doing barrel rolls under the kayaks. Back for a delicious lunch then some quiet down time while some of the others went out snorkeling.
After lunch on to Fernandina where, in 1974, volcanic activity pushed the island up six feet. Not trivial. We walked along marvelous lava formations, past piles - mounds, heaps - of marine iguanas. Also a flock of flightless cormorants sitting on their eggs; a true partnership arrangement as we watched a mother leave and the father swap to take over her spot. Then we explored a little inlet overgrown with mangroves where we spotted sting rays and sea turtles.
Underway as soon as we were back on board, but quite calm until dinner. Everyone in good form chatting and laughing, making quite a late night of it: 9:15. Lots of pitching overnight, but less roll. Back north over the equator, around the northern tip of Isabella and back south of the equator to Santiago. That's four crossings of the equator.
Tuesday, May 17
Early start to a wet landing on Santiago. More interesting lava formations, then furred sea lions hiding in perfect pools and curled up on cozy ledges. Colorful sally crabs and iguanas by the pile. Good walk then some intense chatting on the beach while folks did some snorkeling. Back on board and moving to nearby small Bartholome. Snorkeling in the afternoon in a protected lagoon where Larry and Maria chanced on some sea turtles and communed with them for some time. Later we had a hike up the wild moonscape to the highest view point, carefully equipped with wooden walkways and stairs so the fragile barrenness is protected. This is apparently where they allowed the filming for Master and Commander.
Wednesday, May 18
Clinker day. Well, half clinker. We'd traveled a bit further south to Santa Cruz island which is inhabited and, I'm afraid, tourist central. Bus to some enormous volcanic sinkholes which were very cool: mysterious deep holes, hundreds of yards across and hundreds of yards deep, all lushly forested and green. From there it was on to the tortoise farm where we visited several age-old (couple of hundred years) tortoises. Again they're within a couple of feet of you - or your camera. And they move with the inexorability of their age and dignity. Leaving the farm we explored a lava tube, subway tunnel size at one end, but narrowing to a hands-and-knees crawl at the other. Larry opted for the full adventure; I backtracked out the larger end.
The rest of the day was less than enthralling. We wasted some time in town, Puerto Ayora, then had lunch at a charming but touristy "farm" in the cooler highlands. This was followed by a ghastly visit to the Darwin Science Center back in Puerto Ayora. They're doing commendable work, trying to save, protect and reproduce endangered animals, but they were deadly conservation evangelists. Larry compared it to Nazi genetic experiments. Too too sad. Even an amusing shoving match between two saddle-back tortoises couldn't redeem the visit. A stroll back to town past tourist shops then another wait (with beer) before we shuttled back to the Reina Silvia. Back on board everyone got a little tipsy and faux polite to the visiting environmental historian from the Darwin Center. Good group bonding.
Thursday, May 19
Another overnight journey to Floreanna then up and out early to the flamingo lagoon - before the wasps come out. Maybe twenty-five pinkies around. Not impressive by the numbers (I guess I was spoiled by Ngorogoro) but amazing to see them take flight easily and majestically. The contrails they made while swimming in the brackish water were also artistic. We crossed over the island to a lovely white sand beach, then back for a swim. On the zodiac ride back to the boat we were stalled by five or six penguins who entertained us for ten minutes or more with their antics.
A great three-quarters of an hour of snorkeling followed inside the Devil's Crown, a rocky ring just off the island. Others saw sharks and rays; I was very content with lovely parrot fish, silver needlefish, black and yellow angelfish, green fat fish, electric blue starfish and more.
In the afternoon we visited the famous mail barrel, a tradition since whaling days. You leave mail in the barrel and the next group picks out items aimed near their home and takes them on their way. A fun thing to play along with. We left postcards for the grandkids and picked up a couple of cards headed for Riverside Drive and Long Island.
Friday, May 20
Overnight to Espanola where we had a long morning paddle from the Reina Silvia along rocky lava shoreline, through many little lagoons and inlets. We had one glorious ten minute stretch where we were surrounded by ten or fifteen young sea lions who played with us, nibbled on the lines from the kayaks, did barrel rolls around us, and came up rolling and splashing us with their fins - I'm sure on purpose. What wonderful fun. As we rounded the island it got windy and rough so Dag turned us back toward the boat and then onto a picture-perfect white sand beach littered with sea lions (and other tourist groups). There was a fumble as we landed with Maria del Carmen waving us in through 2-3 foot waves, while another guide was pushing us off. In the muddle, Larry got a real whack on the shins from the kayak. Hard enough to give him a real scare and nasty cuts and scrapes on his legs. He took the zodiac back while the rest of us strolled the beach. Back on board Dag checked him out, bandaged the cuts and prescribed gin and tonic to ward off discomfort. A thankfully minor event. The patient stayed on board, but the rest of us went off snorkeling, swimming through and around two volcanic formations. Great show in both spot. The system was they'd drop the group off, you'd swim in the appointed direction until the current stopped you or you got tired, then you'd wave and the zodiac would pick you up. Great system and I felt secure, but with thirteen people in the water, Maria del Carmen and our captain kept a very attentive watch.
Lunch then a quick look at Dag's Vietnam slide show before a long walk to albatross acres, blue-footed booby courting country and magnificent seascapes with cliffs and blowholes. We even saw the albatrosses, who aren't able to get up to flying speed on land, walking off the cliff edge to launch into flight. Back over more stony paths to showers (bliss) and a lively farewell ceremony. I was asked to present the captain and crew thanks and tips, while Carolyn Matalene had a great speech thanking Maria del Carmen. Lively dinner before packing and bed.
Saturday, May 21
Moored at San Christobel. Breakfast then a quick ride to the town pier where we killed a bit of time while the baggage was taken off. We walked about a mile through town to the airport for our flight via Guayaquil and on to Quito. Everyone gathered again for a festive dinner at a restored hotel, the Hotel Patio Andaluz. Great fun with a dinner theatre performance going on in the background. Final farewells, then home to the Hilton, quick sleep, early rising and our flights back to the Big Apple. Three hours late leaving Quito (crew needed to meet the rest requirements) but we were rebooked onto a flight into JFK and were home in time for dinner.