(19,846 statute miles ; 31,938 km)
Since last updating this page from Panama in February, we have sailed over 4000nm across the South Pacific Ocean via the Galapagos Archipelago to the Marquesas in French Polynesia. This is equivalent to a journey one sixth of the way around the world along the Equator. Our ship's clock tells the tale as we have passed through three time zone changes and now find ourselves ten and a half hours behind UK local time. Along with Microsoft system designers, we didn't know there where half hour increments in time zones, until we came across the Marquesian variant of Central Pacific Time!
The Galapagos archipelago exceeded by far what were already high expectations, engendered by all we had read from Charles Darwin to Bernard Moitissier. Even the numerous TV natural history and geological documentaries we had watched over the years failed to prepare us fully for what we were to encounter. This was such a profound and rewarding experience that we felt we ought to dedicate this update primarily to our five week stay there. The story of these exotic Polynesian islands we will relate later when we reach Tahiti late in June.
Our first destination after leaving the Isthmus of Panama behind was Ilas Perlas, a charming group of islands just 45nm offshore. Their red and yellow rocks below slopes of dry forestation showed us yet a further nuance of starkly beautiful, tropical landscape. Most of the around fifty islands are uninhabited, the rest bar one support very small fishing based communities. The exception is Isla Contadora where exceedingly rich Panamanians have built the most sumptuous and architecturally daring holiday retreats. Needless to say we walked the island gaping at such ostentatious displays of wealth in such a relatively poor country, then disappeared quickly to bask alone on remoter shores.
Our favourite anchorage was tucked away in a narrow passage between Isla Rey and Espiritu Santo where, aside from the odd passing fishing parogue, we had the whole area entirely to ourselves, complete with a dozen or so beaches like the one above. It was a great chance to chill out and recover after the frantic repairs, preparations and re-provisioning that had occupied us so fully in Panama City.
The next leg of around 1000nm took us through the area of light or no winds called the Doldrums and across the Equator to the Galapagos Archipelago. Amoenitas crossed the line at 19.23hrs, local time at longitude 86º 11'W, whereupon his most gracious Majesty of the Deep accepted Diaphanous Di and Dolphin Dave into the ancient order of Bi-hemispherical Unwashed Mariners (BUMs). We had a great party but sadly so many of our sailing and other friends couldn't make it!
As we entered the Galapagos at dawn on Thursday the Ides of March, we knew immediately we were approaching somewhere special. There were turtles, sea lions, dolphins and sharks around us and we caught a lovely tuna on the line we troll behind. Its strange the way you only seem to catch fish at the end of a long passage, just when you are looking forward to going ashore for a nice steak!
The Galapagos are a part of Ecuador and as far as cruising sailors are concerned, have been a constant headache for decades due to muddled policies and local feuds. We thought for some months we wouldn't be allowed to stay more than 72hrs as the Ecuadorian Navy, who play a major role in the administration of the islands, were involved in a dispute with a local conservation group called Sea Shepherd. They had accused them of corruption by 'allowing' illegal fishing for protected species and we yachties were a pawn in this acrimonious dispute. However, we did get 21 days but with the restriction that we visit only one port.
Our first impression of Puerta Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz was how developed and touristy it was but even so, the marine iguanas were everywhere underfoot near the shore. We had brought our copy of the Voyage of the Beagle with us and had just enjoyed re-reading it, so the Darwin Centre just outside the town was an early must. We explored the hinterland, or so called transition zone between arid coast and damp volcanic highlands. There were many of the famed Giant Tortoises in the wild, like the one below Di is attempting to befriend. The Galapagos were named after the Spanish for Giant Tortoise. We also went through a lava tube, an amazing natural tunnel around 500m long formed when rapidly flowing lava had run below a skin of solidified crust, leaving behind an almost perfectly circular tunnel around 10m in diameter. As Di would hasten to add, perfect but for the point half way along where the roof came to within 60cm (2ft) of the floor. No chance of the luxury of hands and knees, it was an inch forward on the stomach job and almost entirely in darkness too as the couple of torches the guides had brought were fast fading.
Frustrated by not being allowed to cruise the island in our own boat, we took a tour on a sailing catamaran to some of the more remote northern islands. There were nine passengers aboard, we with two Canadian sailing friends, four Swiss back packers and a poor guy from Mexico who was in a land that spoke his native tongue but couldn't understand a word of the banter in English, French or German.
Our trip was fantastic but would that the boat had been a bit more functional and had a few less stowaway cockroaches;and working toilets and water in washbasins for a start. Nevertheless, Victor the chef's meals were wonderful, Wilo our guide was superb and the gilt on the gingerbread was the fact that there was scuba diving from the boat. There were also lots of opportunities to drop over the side to snorkel on the reefs and swim with the sea lions. They are so friendly and inquisitive, even coming over to pull on the painter of the dingy to encourage us to join them in the water. Certainly it was better to be in there swimming with them than having them visit us on Amoenitas, sleeping in our tender overnight, keeping us awake with their belching and leaving unpleasant reminders behind next morning.
The volcanic origins of these islands are clear below in this view from atop the island of Bartolome. After we descended, we got to snorkel around that amazing pinnacle of rock which was home to penguins, boobies, egrets and inevitably sea lions.
Dave had three diving opportunities on the trip, each different and stupendous by any standard. The final dive off the small Seymour Island was unique in the variety of amazing marine life. We were approached by several huge hammerhead sharks and were within 15m of a group of over twenty white tipped sharks, all close together, facing into the strong current awaiting breakfast to make an appearance. Giant manta rays came by, along with turtles and of course masses of inquisitive sea lions. Needless to say there were hundreds of species of fish too. A mind blowing and ever memorable experience.
Below, an example of the ongoing volcanic activity, a submerged crater with further craters within it. The last major eruption was around twenty years ago but there are many fumaroles and signs of activity.
On Isla Santiago there was a lava field over 50 sq Km in extent that had formed around 120 years ago under the influence of strong winds. These had created the most bizarre patterns as the liquid rock cooled and set. Again the lava below the surface had continued to flow leaving many voids that caused cracking over the years into thousands of sculptured plates. Here's a picture of Dave crawling into one. As it was near noon and we were only around 15 miles south of the Equator at this point, crouching in a hole in black rock wasn't the most comfortable of exploits.
These islands derive most of their fame from the special wildlife they support. Many species came to populate these remote volcanic isles by sea, often on floating timber or rafts of flotsam from Peru or Ecuador. Birdlife had it a bit easier and came by air. Once there, they evolved in isolation, adapting to the changing environment as rocks turned to soil and as other species arrived to provide competition in the search for food. Though discovered in 1535 by Fray Thomas de Berlanga, Bishop of Panama, man had little or no influence here until the 19th century whaling ships started to call to replenish water and food supplies. So when in 15th September 1835 Charles Darwin arrived on the Beagle's voyage of scientific and cartographical research, all the evidence was there to complete his theories on the Evolution of the Species.
Here are a few examples of this rich variety of wildlife. Most of the creatures were incredibly tame, as with the exception of the whaling ships that removed turtles for food, man has not featured highly as a predator in these parts. Frigate birds are our constant companions on the high seas but the only other place we have seen them nesting was on the island of Barbuda in the West Indies. They cannot land on the sea so live by attacking other birds on the wing to get them to release their catches.
This boobie, seen on the island of Seymour seems to have mismatching shoes on. We wondered whether the difference in the webbing of the feet might cause him to swim in circles. In flight their legs are barely visible and the body is extended to transform them into the most elegant of sea birds. Most of the world's population of Blue Footed Boobies are found on this archipelago but small scattered colonies can also be found on the west coast of the Americas from Peru in the south to California in the north
The margins by the sea are the haunts of these charmingly decorated Sally Lightfoot crabs and the marine iguanas. We wondered whether Sally, reputed to be the girlfriend of an English sailor was entirely happy to be associated with this creature?
Though not the most handsome of fellows, the iguanas of the Galapagos that took swimming lessons and adapted to marine life certainly have discovered how to blend in to a background of grey lava rock.
Their brothers, the land based iguanas decided the red volcanic soil was more their bag. Some grow to become over 1.5m long (5ft) and also featured on the menu of the visiting whaling vessels.
With around four days of our stay in the archipelago left we decided to call in at the remote island of Isabela where it was rumored that Christian, the Port Captain at Puerta Villamil was more cruiser friendly. It was a quiet, sleepy sort of town with a beautiful, well sheltered anchorage which was fortunate for investigation of a 'minor' leak in our engine's fresh water coolant system uncovered a totally knackered recirculation pump. The good news was that it is a wonderful place to be stuck awaiting spares, the downside is the remoteness makes the chance of getting any unlikely. Phones to the outside world had been down for weeks and the Equadorian Customs levy a 45% duty on imports that has to be paid at Puerta Ayora before they will ship from the mainland.
Ordering from a Volvo agent in Florida by e-mail worked well and Mike and Mary on Meriva came to our rescue, paying the duty on Santa Cruz, awaiting the spares getting there, then bringing them on to Isabela. What stars! The actual job was pretty complex as so much of the engine had to be stripped away to gain access. However, after some frustration all went together again with no bits left over and so far with 10hrs use seems fine. After each of these traumas, Di tends to complain less and less at what she initially thought was sailing the globe in a floating toolbox.
With time to spare in Villamil we could get to see some of Isabela, which is difficult as there are virtually no roads and few settlements. The island was formed by five huge volcanoes. An arduous day's journey by truck, horseback and on foot enabled us to see the largest, Sierra Negra whose crater rim at 12.5km diameter and 41km circumference is thought to be the 2nd largest in the world. Above, Di has the appearance of a remarkably accomplished rider, which of course she is but needless to say we both took a few days to recover the ability to remain sitting down comfortably.
On the crater rim there are still areas of volcanic activity with fumaroles belching forth fumes and lots of holes we could have cooked breakfast in. We were amazed that we could stand in the most dangerous of places, peering down tens of metres into the fiery depths with no warnings or guardrails. Just shows how mollycoddled we have become in our western society.
Another wonderful aspect of sailing these waters is the added camaraderie engendered by the fact that all we yachties there are heading the same way and are about to make what is normally the longest ocean passage undertaken by cruising sailors. Special friendships are made and we get together often to go on trips, eat ashore or chill out with our own brand entertainment. Here we are, enjoying the hospitality of Jeff and Claudia at Casa Rosado, on the beach at Villamil, Isla Isabella. He is a reformed Houston lawyer, turned songwriter, she is Argentinian and enticed him to Galapagos by making living there for most of the year a condition of marrying him. As the name implies, they live in a pink house on the beach with their three young children and keep open house at least once a week for we yachties.
I've just realised that looking along the front row from left to right we have Heather (from Oz), Claudia (Argentina), Gene(US) and Spaniard (Ricardo). Behind them are Jill (US), John (Denmark) a Frenchman and Phil from Falmouth England. This illustrates another thing that is different from sailing the Caribbean , the mix of nationalities. The other side of the Canal is the US cruisers equivalent of the Mediterranean where they outnumber all others by a factor of at least five to one. Out here in the Pacific it all changes and we Europeans form the majority.
Where to next:
We are now exploring the Marquesas in French Polynesia which is turning out to be even more exotic than we could ever have imagined. The scenery is beyond belief so we need to keep pinching ourselves regularly. This story will have to wait now until we reach Tahiti for the Bastille day celebrations (14th July). Papeete the capital is 1000 miles away and on the way we will spend time on several atolls in the Tuamoto group. This is known as the 'Dangerous Archipelago' as the atolls are just above sea level and difficult to see, with entrances through narrow, shallow passes in the reefs made even more difficult by strong and unpredictable currents.
After that, all those magical island names like Moorea, Bora Bora, Cook Islands and Tonga, not to mention a mass of isolated atolls on the way. Late in October we will leave, from Tonga or Fiji to make the difficult 1000nm passage to New Zealand. We will arrive there at the beginning of their summer all ready to cruise and explore for the next six months. We are planning to buy a camper van there so we can get around both islands easily.