Friday, April 26, 2013

Isabela´s Wild Side

A while ago, on our third day in the Galapagos, Mark and I visited the Interpretation Center in San Cristobal and studied a 3D-model of the island group. The west coast of Isabela (the biggest island of the archipelago, and created by five connected volcanoes), with the small island of Fernandina settled in its bay-like western shore drew our attention. This area was supposed to offer some wild looking scenery and an abundance of sea life. If we would ever do a tour in the Galapagos, this was the one we wouldn´t mind spending money on! A few weeks ago, some cruisers here in Isabela must have had a similar thought. They inquired about a “West Coast Tour” and, upon finding none, appointed one of the local dive companies to create a custom built boat tour. The friendly, helpful and English speaking Paco was in charge of the new venture and the “West Coast Tour” was born.

Cruisers that had been on this tour, were blown away, utterly amazed; they recommended the tour full-heartedly. It was so worth the $120 per person. It included snacks, drinks, lunch, snorkeling, wild life viewing, and with a maximum of ten people, the long ride up the coast was comfortable enough. We heard stories about swimming with penguins, heaps of giant marine turtles, marine iguanas, sharks, and manta rays. We listened to reports of dancing Blue-footed boobies, an amazing and invigorating boat ride through lava gorges (The Tuneles, a tour arranged by itself for $80 per person) and sightings of orcas. We were sold! All we had to do was put a group of ten people together and reserve a day on Paco´s busy schedule. That day was eight days out. Ten people were found within the first hour. The price had gone up to $130.

The big day of our West Coast Tour arrived. Like the other passengers, Mark and I waited on deck to be picked up by Captain Julio and his crew. We saw the tour boat stop at different sailboats and … leave! Was this a joke? Luckily, our friends Birgit and Christian from SV Pitufa, who we organized the tour with, were on board, and a bit later, the motor boat turned around and stopped at Irie. Not such a funny start of the day. The fact that we counted 13 people in the boat (including us), plus three crew, was a surprise as well. Everybody settled in, basically on the lap of a neighbor, and the long ride started. We heard that the tour boat had crashed into one of the cruising boats while picking the owners up and had left a big gash on the side. The whole scene, unfortunately, set the mood for the day.

The ride along the south coast of Isabela, around the corner and a bit up the east coast took about three hours. We watched out for wildlife, but only saw a few manta rays. One of them made some spectacular jumps in the distance; the others just showed the white and black tips of their wings along the surface. It gave us a good idea about their massive size.  We slowed down along the solidified lava flanks of Volcan Cerro Azul, where one of the crew – unsuccessfully – tried to catch lunch. Usually, a tuna gets caught within minutes and the day can go on as planned. Today was different. During the fishing efforts, we all enjoyed the barren lava landscape on shore, the crashing waves on the rocks and the empty fishing line. After 20 minutes of anticipation, we moved to the first snorkel sight. Little penguins and flightless cormorants were posing on the rocks. Once in the water, the visibility was awful. Sea lions would swim within three feet of us and we would not see them through our masks. We all resorted to swimming towards the animals and then observe them above the water surface. It proved to be a good tactic and Mark and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the amazing creatures up close. Less used to people than their peers in harbors, these penguins and sea lions were a bit shyer, but nevertheless tolerated us in their habitat.

Some more fishing without results slowed us down and had us caught in a rain storm. Being wet already from swimming, we continued to the next snorkel spot along the way back. Here, we saw tons of turtle heads poke out of the water. Because of the crappy weather, the cold and cloudy sea water and the hungry stomachs, nobody felt like jumping in and joining the sea turtles. We had an apple, one piece of chocolate and a drink. Only four cups were available, so we all needed to share. People were not very happy; the hopes were set on food and the main attraction: Los Tuneles. In the drizzle, we slowly followed the coast line back, while the lure on the fishing line was changed. Excitement arrived when a yellow fin tuna was hooked. With no back-up plan for lunch, this was great news. We all watched when the 15 pound “beast” was reeled in. The guys were not satisfied with one catch, so the fishing continued until we collected three similarly sized yellow fins. The spirits lifted. We could smell lunch!

The Tuneles are reached by driving in between breaking waves. It is a tricky endeavor during which tourists have broken arms and backs and which only a handful of captains are capable of doing. Julio is one of the experienced fellows, but… when the swell runs too high and all that is to be seen are white caps and foaming waves, even he has to bail. Many times, there is a substantial swell here in Isabela and today was, regrettably, no different. We had to skip the Tuneles and another wave of disappointment followed. Paco had been talking about an alternative bay, behind the waves, where it would be calm enough to make a lunch ceviche from the fish and where we could snorkel. Instead, we kept going and he started talking about dividing up the three fish, so we could all take some home. It was 16:00 already What about lunch? What about that last stop?

We convinced the crew to give it a go and soon after, we meandered through the waves and arrived in a very calm bay.  A little bit more effort from the captain, avoiding shallows and maneuvering along exposed rocks – it was low tide- and we anchored on the opposite side of Los Tuneles. Reputedly less spectacular, the area still offered some interesting scenery of funky looking lava rocks. Some of us went back into the water with our wetsuits and snorkeled through narrow channels and past caves, while the crew made ceviche and the seabirds stood by. Our little sea bound group spotted two white tip reef sharks and a couple of marine turtles, one of which was humongous; the biggest one I´d ever seen.  Back on the boat and dried off, we had a small bowl of raw fish “cooked” in lime juice. The ceviche was very tasty, but not quite enough for our hungry stomachs. It was a 6pm lunch. The sun was going down, creating a pretty spectacular sunset with a volcano backdrop. What followed was a 45 minute boat ride in the dark and the rain, our shivering and shaking bodies trying to stay warm. When we arrived on Irie at 19:00, all we could think was “Home sweet home!” With a last effort, Mark turned one of the freshly caught tunas into two giant fillets, promising four scrummy dinners for Pitufa and us. Too bad we missed out on collecting the only rain in weeks…

Crowded boat

 Flightless cormorants

Galapagos penguins

Cutting the tuna for ceviche

 In between snorkels

Small volcano on the flank of a big one, Cerro Azul

Painted toe nails to join the Blue-footed boobies

Magnificent sea turtle

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