Updated: Nov 6
Santa Cruz is a 'must see'. It is the largest town in the Galapagos with a thriving, up-beat feel. Many of the best tours start from Puerto Ayora and most tourists fly here before taking boats to the other islands. There are plenty of examples of attempts to make the place 'interesting' or 'arty', including this street covered in umbrellas
We had expected to be motoring between the Galapagos islands. Indeed, our trip from San Cristobal to Isla Isabela required mechanical assistance for half the distance. However, the day before we were due to sail to Santa Cruz, a decent southerly wind sprang up. Reaching in 12-15 knots of wind, Skyfall devoured the 48nm between the islands and our passage here became a 'short day sail', dropping anchor around 15.00. It took a little longer before we could crack open the celebratory beer as this anchorage is notoriously 'rolly' and it is essential to deploy a stern anchor. (The boat rolls less if you keep the bow pointing in the direction the waves are coming from. A boat will lie at anchor pointing into the wind. If the wind changes so the boat lies across the waves then this can become unpleasant. Putting a second anchor out from the stern holds the boat lined up between the anchors). This meant launching the dinghy, lowering the outboard, digging the stern anchor out of its hiding place in the lazarette, etc. However, an hour later everything was set and we were ready to enjoy the island.
About thirty minutes walk from town there is a small park, home to the original giant tortoise breeding centre but also a research centre jointly funded by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Smithsonian. Their primary goal is to protect native species and control invasive species. To do this they have had to develop ways to count and measure populations, promote practices to prevent introduction of new species whilst finding ways to eradicate unwanted ones. These are the guys we can blame for all that hull cleaning drama!
Navies used to 'seed' islands with goats, knowing that they would 'go forth and multiply'. Then, on their return, they knew that they had a known source of meat. This invasive species was one of the first to be eradicated, using snipers from helicopters and experts from New Zealand. Even though goats are big, just this one project took huge resources and five years work. Today, the biggest eradication program targets rats as they eat young tortoises.
There was also a great section on sharks. Like a fish, a shark breathes through its gills. Nearly all sharks need to keep moving to keep water flowing through their gills. The exception is the white tip shark, which has developed a pump allowing it to sleep, stationary on the bottom.
The skin of a shark is an amazingly complex design. It contains tiny 'ribs' aligned in the direction of water flow to reduce drag. The optimum size of these ribs depends on whether the water flow is linear or turbulent and should differ across the body accordingly. The shark has evolved with the correct size of riblets everywhere across its body resulting in around ten percent less friction and allowing it to swim faster. Remember the appearance of full body swim suits at an Olympics which were subsequently banned? That was man trying to emulate nature.
We did our usual walks to snorkelling spots. Vegetation can be classified as 'coastal' (typically mangroves), 'arid' (in the lower parts of the islands) or 'humid' (higher up). The arid landscape is dominated by the Optunia cactus.
Whilst in Grenada we had met the skipper of the British Army's 70' ex-clipper race boat. Supposedly, throwing squadies into unfamiliar roles, where they quickly need to work together and rely on each other, makes them better soldiers. He has been doing the job almost 30 years and has visited the Galapagos many times. He commented, " The Galapagos are great, but all the best bits are underwater". It was his advice that persuaded us to learn to dive in Bonaire in preparation for our visit here. What makes Galapagos special is the 150,000 km2 marine park where commercial fishing is outlawed. Man kills 100,000,000 sharks each year. But not here. Yes, we found the abundance of fish, rays and turtles amazing. But it is the prevalence of sharks and 'big' animals which makes diving here unique. We made several dives around Santa Cruz. Most require an early morning start and a dive boat.
Apart from Darwin and Wolf Islands (which cost a small fortune to get to), the most famous is Gordon Rocks. Here, on two separate dives, we repeated the 'once in a lifetime experience' of diving with hammerhead sharks. The second time was spectacular. The dive guide spotted them and managed to bring us up the other side of an underwater ridge. There was a current and the technique is to hold on and watch the animals swim by. We were a couple of meters below the ridge, searching for hand holds when two massive hammerheads appeared over the ridge no more than ten metres from us (sorry, no picture as it was over in a few seconds).
The other thing about Gordon Rocks is that it is home to a population of blue boobies. Supposedly, no trip to the Galapagos would be complete without seeing these iconic birds.
Our time in the Galapagos is almost done. On Monday we will start the 3000nm sail to the Marquesas in French Polynesia. I have wondered how to conclude and say goodbye to this magical place. Finally, and given how much underwater activity we have enjoyed, I decided to take inspiration from Douglas Adams (and the title of his fourth book),
" So long, and thanks for all the fish"
Galapagos Epilogue (slightly political):
Prior to 1975 there were less than seven thousand people living on these islands. Tourism was non-existent. Multiple 19th and early 20th century colonization attempts had failed, mainly due to the remoteness and lack of a natural water source (except on San Cristobal). For most, despite its magic, life was just too difficult. Although part of Ecuador, The Galapagos authorities were granted a large degree of autonomy from the mainland. Taxes raised here could be kept here and reinvested in the islands. The figures were tiny and, conversely, the Ecuador government were off the hook with respect to subsidising this far-flung outpost. The Galapagos authorities could also control immigration, even from Ecuador. Then, someone had the bright idea of bringing ten affluent Americans to see 'nature'. After a six day trip each visitor is said to have tipped the guide an average of $100. The wide-eyed guide responded by retiring, moving back to Ecuador using his weeks earnings, and lived the rest of his years as a King. The earnings potential of tourism had been realised.
Up until 2017 the Galapagos authorities appear to have done an excellent job of managing the new business. The industry focussed on relatively small numbers of high value visitors. Rules were established to ensure the profits remained within the Galapagos. To own a tourist boat, hotel or taxi required multiple generations of residence on the islands. All the taxes raised were reinvested in the islands and nature reserves. In addition, they bought fast navy vessels and spotter planes to enforce the 200 nm fishing limit and to eradicate a drug trafficking route from Peru to the USA which used Isabela as a refuelling post. The population growth and building works have been relatively well managed. Both Santa Cruz and San Cristobal have a pleasant 'vibe' and, in 2017 the islands electricity was 100% sourced from renewables. The authorities have invested in a small University, desalination plants, etc.
In 2017 all that changed with the election of a new socialist government. The industry has now grown to 300,000 annual visitors bringing in close to $1B. The position of the new administration was that the Galapagos were part of Ecuador and all taxes raised belonged to the nation. A percentage of the revenue would be returned to maintain the parks but the difference could go some way to alleviating social issues on the mainland. Consequently, the number of park rangers has halved since 2017 and those fast patrol boats and planes often lie idle as there is no money for fuel. Even the plentiful public toilets have started to lose their sheen (soap dispensers are empty, there is never paper and if something breaks then it stays broken). It is not the way to develop and maintain a high value tourist destination.
Secondly, the business is now big enough to warrant corruption to get permits. San Cristobal recently got its first USA owned hotel. A Galapagos resident may have lent his name to the permit, but the beneficial owner is a subsidiary of the Hilton Group.