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Cruising Journals - Pam Wall

Chapter 9 - The Galapagos Islands

"You know something, that blue footed booby is flirting with you, Andy!" And it was indeed. We had just pulled our inflatable dinghy up onto a sharp lava strewn ledge. While attempting to walk to the crest of the hill, we had to literally coax all the boobies out of the way. There were so many birds, none the least bit afraid of us that they just would not get out of our way. Then one particular bird started doing his marvelous mating dance right in front of Andy. A blue footed booby shows its love by pulling up one bright blue foot at a time while furiously chirping and clacking its beak. There was no doubt whatsoever who this bird was trying to impress. Andy, who is Australian, had fallen in love with many "birds" or women as they are called in Australia, but NEVER had he had a bird like this fall in love with him!

Here we were, in the enchanted islands of the Galapagos, touring these fabulous lava torn islands while Kandarik was anchored nearby. We had been so fortunate to receive permission to sail around these islands as most other yachts were forbidden. Now we were just beginning to learn how truly different our relationship with the animals would be.

While anchored in Academy Bay, we hired the mandatory guide from the Darwin Institute to accompany us as we sailed from one island to the next. Merritt, the guide, was there to protect the flora and fauna of these unique islands and he turned out to be a fountain of knowledge for all aboard.

The routine for visiting these islands quickly became familiar, but the animals we saw, and the landscapes we climbed over, never ceased to amaze us. Merritt would tell us that we absolutely had to be at a certain anchorage by dawn. The early morning was the best time to see all the animals. Andy and I would sail Kandarik all night, while Merritt slept soundly below. We would just get the anchor down before first light, when bright-eyed Merritt would inform me that we had to be ashore within the next half-hour and we better hurry up and have a good breakfast because we would be ashore all day. Exhausted, I would flake the sails with Andy, straighten up on deck, and rush below to the galley to perform some miracle of a meal. Then off we would go for another adventure ashore.

Andy was always concerned about the exposed anchorages while I was worried that we would surely puncture the inflatable dinghy upon the sharp lava rock. Even though we were both a bit uneasy all day, we never experienced a problem.

There was the time, of course, when late one afternoon we returned to the inflatable. We had been visiting a long stretch of sandy beach where a harem of sea lions lived. Sammy and Jamie could walk among the female sea lions and go right up to them and pet them as if they were pet dogs. We had been warned by Merritt, that if the bull ever came home to the beach, we had better make haste to disappear. But, since no Big Daddy was around we had a great time on the beach with all these sleek sea lion ladies and pups.

As the sun was setting, we reluctantly left the beach to the barking sea lions and headed for the inflatable dinghy. Sammy said, "Look Merritt, the papa sea lion is in the dinghy!" What an understatement. This wasn't merely a "Papa" it was a giant bull sea lion weighing over 400 pounds. He looked ferocious with his fang like teeth. "Don't worry," said Merritt quite bravely; "I know how to get him out of the dinghy." And with that ridiculous statement he started to clap his hands as he cautiously approached the boat. Well, the bull obviously didn't get the correct message. As Merritt approached clapping his hands, this seemed to be the very signal the massive animal was waiting for. He slithered out of the boat and pulled himself along the rocks and jagged lava faster than our fleeing Darwin guide, charging after Merritt with fangs threatening and mouth roaring just like a lion!

Sammy and Jamie and I quickly hid behind Andy, while poor Merritt ran as fast as his legs could carry him away from that charging bull. The chase ended quickly as the bull tired of the game, but instead of heading back into the sea, he once again settled down in the comfort of our dinghy. It was some time before our fearless guide returned to the water's edge. "Well, what trick do you have next?" Andy couldn't hide the sarcasm in his voice. Poor Merritt, turned his palms up in supplication, and suggested we just wait patiently for Papa to go home to all his wives.

Eventually the game was over, and the bull silently slipped back into the water. We hesitated only a minute before rushing down to the boat. It was dark by now, and we had to feel our way aboard. With disgust and revulsion we quickly discovered that the bull had the last laugh after all. We all were slipping and sliding around in a huge pile of what had once been the bull's favorite meal. All I have to say is what Sammy so concisely stated as we slowly motored back to Kandarik, "Mom," she choked out, "I don't think I can ever eat fish again."

Have you ever had the wonderful opportunity to watch a giant albatross take off? That is just what it is like, an enormous airplane that looks just too big for flight. The magnificent white bird looks around for a clear runway, out of the way of his fellow birds, then begins the laborious effort to get airborne. Off he goes, flapping his wings as he runs along the ground going faster and faster. He appears to be saying, "I think I can, I think I can." As he accelerates you can see he is heading for the cliff edge. When it looks like exhaustion has set in from the laborious run down the fairway, he reaches the precipice and at last gracefully glides into the air. The wings are still as the thermals help him soar, the legs are quietly stowed beneath the huge body, and airborne the large once laboring bird looks like simple harmony in effortless motion. Here in the Galapagos we witnessed many albatross take-offs, each made us laugh at first, sigh with relief as the bird finally soared out to sea, then marveled at the grace of flight this magnificent bird displayed.

I will never forget the horseback riding saddles shaped like instruments of torture. Merritt took us high into the hills one day. We were led to heavy-coated horses standing in a small corral. Here we were to embark on a search for the famous Galapagos Island tortoises. Some of these ancient turtles were old enough to have said hello to Darwin himself. They can live for 150 years, and when we finally did find them, we wondered what other humans they had suffered an acquaintance with over the past 100 years or so. But, it was the saddles that will forever remain in our memories. I can only describe them as vehicles of torture. These unique saddles were made of wood. They were two pieces nailed together in a tentlike affaire with the peak of the tent on the horses back. This meant, naturally, that the rider sat astride the top of the pyramid, nothing like a cushion or piece of leather to cover the natural corner. One cannot imagine why they were so constructed, but the little boy who led us up the hill rode bareback. I can only think he was laughing at us the whole way. Needless to say, after three or four hours in this contraption, while my steed carefully picked his way through the cactus, lava rocks, and dried stunted thorny trees, my whole area between my legs cried out in pain. I don't think any of us could walk properly for days.

Happily we did find the old boys high up on the ridges after those hard won miles. There they were, chomping on prickly grass, sharp thorns of cactus, and acting as if the next 100 years would be the same as the last. These enormous tortoises, with high-backed shells, were completely unafraid of us. Merritt would not let us touch them, although we could go right face to face. He told us if we were able to pick a piece of tough grass and rub the grass under the shell, the tortoise would think we were little birds picking out the parasites in the skin. This reaction would make the tortoise rise up as high as it could on all four legs. Then the head would extend outwards exposing the entire long neck. While Sammy and Jamie pleaded with Merritt to let them try this, we were never allowed to see if this really worked. It was not until three years later, on Ascension Island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, that Sammy and Jamie proved to themselves that the tortoises really responded as Merritt had said.

Merritt particularly liked spelunking, or exploring caves. One day we sailed overnightto his favorite island. He liked this one best because it had a seriesof underground caves that led to underwater caves. I am absolutely claustrophobicin caves but Andy and Jamie are game for anything. So off the three of them went festooned with lines, flashlights, and masks and snorkels. Down into the porous earth we watched them disappear. The time dragged for Sammy and me as we awaited their return. Hours seemed to pass although it must have been only one. Then we heard from the depths Andy's voice yelling from below us, "I found it, I found it, hurry before the last flashlight goes out!" As they emerged, you could see the relief on the faces of all three adventures. As they had traveled further and further into the caves, and had actually been swimming through the last cavern, their flashlights had started going out, one by one. They had to go as fast as they could first swimming from cave to cave, and then running back towards the entrance before the last of the flashlights failed. Jamie's little face was covered in water. He said it was from the underground pools, but I think it was tears he was afraid to explain. We all were very happy to get back to the cozy cabin of Kandarik. While Andy inspected all the failed flashlights, he was embarrassed to find we had put 2 cell bulbs into 3 cell flashlights and that was the reason for the failure.

I have never seen Merritt so angry. We had been ashore all day, again marveling at the pink flamingos, the thousands of baby boobies hiding their fluffy bodies under their parents, watching the iguanas' sunbathe on the salty rocks, and admiring the majestic blowholes on the windward side of the island. As we all piled into Kandarik's cockpit after this long day on land, a pair of snappy mockingbirds flew out the companionway hatch! Inspection of down below showed they had feasted on all my fresh tomatoes. There were even signs aboard everywhere that they had so enjoyed this red ripe fruit that they had been aboard long enough to empty their full stomachs, and start again. The boat was covered in bird poop, and little yellowish tomato seeds. Merritt exploded and told me we should have closed all the hatches before leaving the boat. I was upset as Sammy and I started to clean up the mess below. Why was Merritt so upset? After all the birds were only eating tomatoes! "But, don't you understand? Now there will be some new seeds introduced to this island that were never here before. The mockingbirds will spread the seeds and change the island. This is terrible, I cannot believe you left the hatches open with those tomatoes aboard!" Well, I guess I will be the one they blame when those seeds bring a new plant to the island. How was I to know those naughty birds would fly below for lunch? I can understand the scientist, Merritt, who is so careful in trying to preserve the natural flora and fauna of these unusual islands. After all, that is really why we were required to have him aboard.

The time flew by as we sailed from island to island. We had been so fortunate to have Merritt aboard. He was like having our own Encyclopedia. We learned so much about the animals, vegetation, and sea life from this well-informed man. We will be forever grateful to him.

Our longest passage was just ahead of us, from the Galapagos Islands to the Marquesas in French Polynesia, a distance of about 3000 miles. While all of our friends had left weeks before us, we became anxious to catch up with them. The vast Pacific Ocean beckoned Kandarik to carry on westward. But, for the entire crew the days we had spent investigating these Enchanted Islands were like visiting a land we felt could not really exist, but did. How fortunate we were to have seen these protected islands and to meet such a knowledgeable man as Merritt our guide.

As we would always find, departing was so difficult. But the anticipation of the next island was an excitement that would replace the sadness of leaving the last port behind.

Pam Wall - Expert Sailor

Pam Wall

Outfitting Manager, West Marine Ft. Lauderdale

  • A lifelong sailor, Pam and her husband have been cruising together for over 36 years!