Galapagos Part 2: A Morning for Flamingos!

Our trip on the Angelito is one of the most exotic and exiting we have ever done. Still, there was nothing exotic about the Angelito mornings. No sooner had the light started to peep thru our windows before a thunderous noise tore our sweet dreams apart. It was 0615 and time for breakfast! 

The last time anybody had done something like that to DHH on a regular basis, he was a raw army recruit. The next thing you knew back then, after the alarm had hit you over the head like a sledgehammer, was an angry sergeant standing on the floor between the bunk beds screaming. There was nothing exotic about that either, especially if you were the last man on his feet. You just had to make sure that last man was somebody else!

Our guide Maja had supplied her ship with a Swiss cow bell, an instrument of mental torture designed to be heard from one corner to the other of every canton of Appenzell in the Swiss mountains. On board the Angelito there were no Alps, but the trick sure worked!

Again, she had her good reasons. Tourism on Galapagos is strongly regulated. Groups of 16, like we were, is the standard number that one guide is allowed to take on an excursion. Only five such groups can visit the same site at the same time. That meant that up to four other ships with up to 64 other people could be heading for the same piece of beach as us on any given morning. In order not to have to fight big crowds along the narrow footpaths she wanted us to be the first ones ashore. 

No, this is not the content of a suitcase dropping from an airliner at high altitude. It is a Galapagos pelican diving for food!

And we always were! The standard day on the Angelito consisted of one excursion in the morning and one in the afternoon, plus a bit of time for snorkeling in between. And today, like in James Lee Burke’s excellent novel from the swamplands of Louisiana, there was a morning for flamingos. 

We had looked for them on a couple of occasions earlier, but with modest success. We had seen one or two, wading on stilts like pink circus artists feeding in various lakes and lagoons. Some places the water looked like it had been accidentally discharged from a chemical plant. This time, however, they put up a proper show. First, we saw them from distance, across a little bay, a crowd of about 20.  Then one of them decided to get a move on, and the rest decided to follow. They were obviously led by a guide, just like us. They took to the air like pink pencils, circling us for a minute or so before settling just where we wanted them, straight in front of the wooden viewing platform where we stood waiting. Then they started wading about, curling their necks in all possible and impossible angels, putting their heads down to their toes nibbling at whatever it is that flamingos find joy in eating. We sure found joy in watching!

A frigate bird looking for a snack he can steal, sitting on a beam on a cruise boat. A sea bird that cannot land on water has to be able to improvise when he goes shopping.

Galapagos may be named after the giant tortoise, but it is the variety in bird life that is the most striking. The unofficial «national bird» is the blue footed boobie. It has huge circular eyes, a frown like a strict spinster librarian and feet like a circus clown. A close cousin is the red footed boobie, but that one is only found on Genovesa island to the northeast, a place not on the agenda during our week on the Angelito. The blue foot is found on a lot more islands and on a lot more t-shirts, and nobody ever visits the Galapagos without seeing his face. 

A question for your next quiz night: Do penguins live north of Equator? The answer is yes, they do, in the Galapagos. This individual however, we met a tiny little inch south of the line.

What most people wearing the «I love Boobies» t-shirt does not know however, is the murderous kind of upbringing these little people get from their parents. Most boobies lay two eggs and get two offspring. Then the parents sit back and watch the two little bundles of white baby feathers fight out the deadliest duel, ending with one of them chasing the other out of the nest. The bluefeet make their nest on the ground so the looser does not go far, maybe just a meter or less, but once having left the boundaries of home the poor thing does not get fed. So the looser just sits there and starves to death in plain sight of his nearest and dearest while the victorious sibling gets all the tender love and care, and most important, all the food!

Then there is the pelican of course, an awkward looking creature with a sack under his jaw the size of an IKEA carrier bag. We passed a nest one morning and got a glimpse of a couple raising a family of three kiddos. One of them had his entire head inside mommy’s beak. Had he thought of it he probably could have jumped in like a baby kangaroo, there probably would have been enough space. The lucky kid had two siblings who also looked to be doing well, so we assume that in this family everybody is allowed to take their turns eating. 

Ready for adventure!

A hunting pelican is a weird sight. They are not the most elegant of flyers. When they dive for food they look like a bundle of rags having fallen out of an airplane. They go into the water head and knees and elbows first, making a big splash. They sure do not have the elegance of the boobie, who goes down vertically from high altitude hitting the water like an arrow at a hundred miles an hour. 

Then we have the frigate bird. He is the chap with the red balloon around his neck and a beak shaped like Captain Hook’s hook. He is also in the same profession as the archenemy of Peter Pan. For a sea bird the frigate has the considerable disadvantage that he cannot land on water, so he makes his living as a pirate on the high seas. One morning back in 2003  DHH found a dead flying fish on the deck of the boat he was on. Overhead was a crowd of early birds, so he broke one of Maja’s rules and thru the fish straight up in the air. Here the flying fish was caught by a boobie who immediately had to let it go when he was attacked by a frigate – who in turn was attacked by a second frigate. The dead fish changed beak in mid air three times before what looked to be the eventual winner flew off with it!

On a beach we found a whale that did not look good. The vet was called, but he wasn’t much help. On the next cruise, maybe the ship should hire a better vet?

There are a couple of Galapagos birds who most certainly did not take part in that chase. The islands have the only colony of pinguins to be found north of the equator. It is a question of only a few kilometers to the north however, as the line goes straight thru their island home. Both the penguins and the flightless cormorant are excellent swimmers, so if you want to see them in their element you are better off snorkeling or scuba diving than doing traditional birdwatching.

DHH and ES didn’t do the water at all on this trip. We chickened out when the rest of the group rented fins and masks and went snorkeling during the midday heat. We did get a bit of ocean life from the surface though, enough to know that Galapagos is also a place where it is well worth the trouble to get your head wet.

All in all, we got a week on the Angelito that was every bit as good as we had been hoping for. Once you get used to the fact that breakfast started horribly early and that your guide is equipped with the same powers as an average army sergeant, it was also possible to enjoy the fact that the food was excellent and the excursions both interesting and exciting. 

We raised a glass to Maja once we discharged ourselves and settled down for a quiet week in a Puerto Ayora hotel. We very much appreciated the fact that we ended up on a ship that was locally owned. The money we spent went straight back into the Galapagos community, and not the some far away shareholder in some far away city. Our hosts are still facing a bit of hardship from the aftermath of the pandemic, but hopefully they will recover and be able to take visitors around those magnificent and unique group of islands for many more years to come! If you ever think of going – check them out before you book with anybody else!

This is a very rough outline of our week on the Angelito. We started at the northern tip of Baltra Island (1) close to where the international airport is located. We headed west along the north coast of Santa Cruz, the island straight south from Baltra. Then we went west and north, around the north end of Isabela, the largest island in Galapagos. In the process we crossed the equator twice. Going south on the west side of the island we passed thru the narrow strait between Isabela and Fernandino, before heading for the little town of Puerto Villamil (2) on Isabelas southern coast. From there we went west to Floreana, and from there north to Puerto Ayora (3), the main town on the islands. After Ayora we passed along the eastern coast of Santa Cruz island on our way back to Baltra. All in all we had about a dozen stops on five different islands.

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