09 December, 2017

Off to Japan...

We've been intending a trip to Japan for some years now, but never got arounjd to committing to it. But after Christmas, we'll be jetting to Tokyo for a two month holiday in The Land of the Rising Sun, travelling north and south from this massive city. We'll spend a couple of weeks on the northern island of Hokkaido, where we'll get around in a four-wheel-drive. But on Honshu, we'll use trains and buses, and hopefully be able to follow our itinerary! The pink area on the map shows roughly where we will go.

We won't get to Shikoku, where Mike has spent a good amount of working time, and not to Kyushu either. We'll save these less frequented islands for another trip, if we only live long enough! Actually, Japan comprises 6,582 islands, but the four big ones are 97% of the total area.

It's easy to think of Japan as a small country. Well, it is (at just under 378,000sq.km it's #61 in size in the world), but it is skinny and deceptively long. Not counting the outer islands, which extend a long way, the four homeislands stretch for about 1900km, and of that, we will be traversing 1500km. There's some long shinkansen journeys in our plan! But we like trains, and look forward to them.

Map of Japan showing the territory we plan to cover.

Current troubles with North Korea and the vision of nuclear armed warheads flying over Hokkaido did come into our thinking. But we took the fatalistic approach and decided that if we waited until those particular problems had been resolved, we would be too old to travel. The Australian Government website is not advising against travel to Japan. So, we're off!

Our plan is to see castles, temples and shrines, bamboo forests and wilderness areas, ice sculptures and lots of snow, onsens and ryokans, and to immerse ourselves in a culture which is most alien to us. The food will be fascinating, as will the wonders of big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. We look forward to this trip greatly, especially as we are going in mid-winter and there won't be too many tourists, except around ski resorts.

18 February, 2017

To Baltra and beyond...

Our expedition is over. The Endeavour II sailed into the harbour on Baltra Island, a small island on the north side of Santa Cruz. During WW2, Baltra was the site of a USA Air Force base which is now the main airport for the Galapagos.

Early that morning, we were treated to a microcosm of Galapagan wildlife by the side of the ship as dozens of blue footed boobies staged a feeding frenzy, diving under the Endeavour II to catch the fish presumably gathered there. Pelicans and sharks joined in the fun.

Blue footed boobys swooped and dived right under the Endeavour II in their quest for breakfast.

They had a rest between courses.

While the blue-footed boobys engaged in their feeding frenzy, a dozen or so sharks showed great interest too, but they didn't bother the boobys.

That's our red Osprey bag nearest the pelican as the Endeavour II unloaded everyone's luggage.

Baltra airport has a new terminal (2013) which is touted as the greenest in the world due to its low energy consumption, waste recycling, rainwater recovery etc. There were three huge wind turbines at the airport. It's lucky that coal power loving, climate change denying Australian politicians like Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott have not explained to Ecuador how ugly these turbines are.

That's it for the Galapagos. The entire passenger list on board the Endeavour II took the morning Avianca flight to Guayaquil, some carrying on to Quito.

So what's our takeaway of the Islas Galapagos, and the expedition on the L-NG Endeavour II? Well, most of the achipelago is protected by National Park, and what is most impressive is the manifest focus on restoring the islands to what they used to be, mostly by eradicating introduced species, and then restocking the islands with native species depleted or even lost.

The future impact of man is tightly controlled. Permits have to be issued for visits to amost every island, licensed guides are always required, and the "carrying capacity" of each location is strictly enforced, which is why our expedition often divided up its activities in apparently arbitrary ways. Tourist promotors who don't follow the rules have, apparently, not much future here.

And we liked the Lindblad - National Geographic approach too. NG are significant sponsors of research and restoration projects (and they encouraged us to donate) on many Galapagos Islands. They source as much fresh produce as possible from the archipelago - one of our meals was 80% local produce. And almost all their naturalists were natives of Galapagos, mostly from Santa Cruz. The only exceptions were some photo specialists.

The islands themselves were hot, dry and pretty barren. We were told that this was the wet season and that "this is as green as it gets", but only some islands in some places actually appeared green. The adjective "lush" would never be applied. Very little rain fell in the week we were here. The unique wildlife that we came to see was no disappointment. Just amazing, and much of it you can't see it anywhere else on the planet.

Our co-expeditioners were an interesting bunch, and we were pretty successful at having a meal with almost all of them. Many were quite disturbed at the gentle rocking of the Endeavour II, and we wonder what they were expecting on a ship? The passengers were friendly and knowledgeable, and most interested in us, although we were surprised to hear some apprently unaware of Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection, and the role played by the Galapagos in their development.

Also, it surprised us that for many passengers the highlight of the expedition was the opprtunities to swim, snorkel, kayak and paddle board. Of course, many were coming from a brutal winter, but as far as we were concerned, the "in-water" activities were mainly a way to get pleasant relief from the equatorial heat.

So, we would recommend Galapagos and Lindblad - National Geographic to anyone interested in seeing and learning about this archpelago's truly unique wildlife. There is just no substitute for seeing these amazing creatures in their natural environment, even if it's sometimes hard work getting near enough to see them. But there are much better places in the world to swim, dive and indulge in water sports, and easier to get to too!

17 February, 2017

In Darwin Bay on Genovesa...

In yet another tribute to Christopher Columbus, Genovesa Island is named after his home town. Of course, the English had their own name, Tower, after a navy admiral. Genovesa is the only island on this expedition north of the equator (a full 19') thus giving the Galapagos penguins here the distinction of being the only ones in the wild in the northern hemisphere. The island is a partially collapsed volcanic caldera now open to the ocean.

We found endemic Galapagos doves on many islands.

And endemic Galapagos mocking-birds too.

And it wouldn't be a Galapagos beach without some sea lions.

The Endeavour II anchored in Darwin Bay, and we experienced two quite special on-shore activities during the course of the day, a beach on Darwin Bay, and the Prince Philip Steps trail. Each visit was limited to about 50 people by the Galapagos National Park.

Frigate birds abound on Genovesa, this female possibly choosing a mate.

This male great (or magnificent?) frigate birds, turns his head way back in an effort to maximise the red display and attract females swooping above.

For the former, we really just roamed about a beach but it contained abundant wildlife - sea lions of course, frigate birds, blue-eyed Galapagos doves, Galapagos mocking birds, but the highlight was our first sighting of the red-footed booby. This completes our booby trifecta, Nazca, blue-footed and now red-footed. What took us by surprise was the blue bill of the red-footed booby!

Much less prolific than the Nazcar booby is this red-footed booby, a brown morph of the species, we are told.

The blue bill is a surprising characteristic of the red footed boobies.

Strking red eyes of the swallow tailed gull.

If he's waiting for the light to change, it's going to be a while!

A Nazca booby chick in the bushes.

Nazca boobies fly in formation when they are young.

Paddle boards being towed back to Endeavour II after we all fell in the water.

Swimming off the back of Endeavour II was not encouraged, but the crew still kept a lookout.

The Prince Philip Steps featured a steep staircase carved into an escarpment which gave access to an elevated plateau which surrounds much of Darwin Bay. Up here was a hot unfriendly track over fissured lava where we saw more Nazca boobys (with eggs and chicks), more red-footed boobys, and a solitary short-eared hunting owl hiding in a cave. Antonio knew exactly where to find this fellow, so we suppose he's pretty predictable.

In a dark cave on the rocky plateau at the top of the Prince Philip Steps hides this Galapagos morph of the short eared owl, the only one we saw, but Antonio knew where to look.

Everywhere on the Galapagos is a photographer's paradise.

Just hatched Nazca chick. The younger one, yet to hatch, will not survive.

The Prince Philip Steps were presumably carved for him, not by him!

As our Zodiac arrived at the landing to the Steps, we saw a fishing boat take a large albacore tuna. The fishermen looked most unprofessional, and the capture was upsettingly inhumane. Antonio said the tuna would earn $300. Some in the Zodiac wanted the fishermen reported (our video chronicler had the evidence) but our guides seemed to be conflicted over whether the catch was illegal or not.

The mother ship of these fisherman caught a large albacore tuna in our sight, but our guides couldn't agree on whether it was legal in this spot.

Local guide Antonio adding an interview to the expedition's video record.

A guest (very sharp eyed ornithologist) plus Mark (L-NG video chronicler) and Aaron (L-NG naturalist and photo instructor).

This map (credit Wikipedia) shows the two walks we did on Genovesa.

16 February, 2017

Galapagos' Iconic View...

Vanessa's map shows us getting closer to the equator.

Isla Bartolomé is one of the few Galapagos islands which has retained (more or less) its original English name, having been named after Sir Bartholomew James Sulivan, a long term friend of Charles Darwin.

The Endeavour II anchored off Bartolome.

Bartolomé's main feature is a 120m volcanic cone which is accessible via a prepared dry-landing platform and a man-made wooden track of 376 steps up an arid hill, virtually to the top. The view is said to be one of Galapagos' most iconic landscapes, and thanks to a 5:00am start, we saw it in perfect light as the sun came up. Socrates said that he guided the crew of the seafaring movie "Master and Commander" up here for filming several years ago.

It was a hard climb to the top for us oldies, but very rewarding when we got there.

The iconic landscape that signifies "Galapagos"!

Sun rises on the volcanic landscape of Bartolome, an island in perpetual drought.

After breakfast, we were able to swim and snorkel in Sulivan Bay, naming source obvious, just near the spectactular pinnacle, a caldera artifact, as we saw from the volcano-top lookout. This was possibly our best underwater outing, under bright sunshine and with very clear water. And later in the same day, we got a second opportunity to snorkel beside another volcanic caldera in the multiple small Bainbridge Islets. We fleetingly saw reef sharks and giant rays, but they all eluded our Nikon underwater camera!

The endemic Galapagos penguins wouldn't swim with us, but they make a loud braying noise.

Whatever this yellow fringed black & white fish is, it was pretty uncommon.

These two fish blended well with the sandy bottom, and seemed to be dancing with each other.

Something we didn't see on any other snorkel outing, a field of 100's of star fish.

The angelfish swim back and forth in huge schools. Smaller fry stay out of their way.

Diving to get a better view of the reef sharks.

We puzzle why some groups from Endeavour II bother to snorkel. When in the water, they talk and laugh endlessly, giving special meaning to the expression "could talk underwater", and they shriek loudly whenever a new fish is spotted.

The glass-bottomed Zodiac gets loaded back onto Endeavour II.

As the Endeavour II cruised around the Bainbridge Islets today, passengers were excited to see numerous dolphins riding the ship's bow-wave and off midships. The captain turned the ship around so we could get a better view. We also had close encounters with dolphins and more jumping manta rays while we were in the Zodiacs, so a great day for seeing these aquatic creatures.

In the Bainbridge Islets, a unique geographical structure - a captive lake inside a small volcano caldera. With bonus flamingos in the lake!

Vanessa, our expedition leader, gave us a very interesting talk today on the particular role the Galapagos Islands played in Darwin's expeditions in the Beagle and how what he saw and collected helped develop an understanding of natural selection and the evolution of species. Amazingly, we noted that some of our fellow passengers seemed totally unaware of this - maybe they are creationists by faith?

15 February, 2017

Land Iguanas and Paradise...

Map (credit: Wikipedia) of Santa Cruz showing the places we visited today.

Now on the arid north coast of Santa Cruz island, we spent a busy day exploring places like Cerro Dragon, Dragon Hill as well as off-shore islets Guy Fawkes, El Eden and Daphne Major.

Coming ashore on the beach at Cerro Dragon.

Heron on the beach as we arrived.

Dragon Hill welcomed us with a rocky dry landing followed by a hot, 3km uneven walk in search of "vulnerable" land iguanas, endemic to the Galapagos as usual! Charles Darwin described these creatures as "ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance." We found plenty of them - they are obviously doing OK in this location at least, and you can judge their appearance for yourself. The land iguanas were virtually wiped out by feral dogs in the 1960's, but are now being restocked by captive and semi-captive breeding programs.

Maybe not as ugly as Darwin described, but no fashion plate either.

Fly catcher spied in the bush.

Socrates explained that this prickly pear cactus has been destroyed by feral goats.

Most of the land iguanas we saw were sunning themselves on volcanic rock in the morning heat, and we learned that they get their water from the also endemic Galapagos great prickly pear cactus, which comprises the bulk of their diet. Like pretty well everything else in the Galapagos, they wandered around with total disregard to us visitors, and we had to be careful not to step on them.

Prickly pear cacti provide food and water for the Santa Cruz land igunas.

As we awaited our Zodiac pickup back to Endeavour II, we all had a great time on the beach watching various herons fishing. These long-legged beauties proved to be excellent photography subjects, and one particular model has probably had more photos taken today than Heidi Klum!

This great blue heron stood still for a long time.

Always a great source of seashore colour, the sally lightfoot crabs, more precisely known as "grapsus grapsus".

This blue heron is fishing, and the crab is quite safe.

Beauty in flight, a pure white great egret.

Snorkelling today was around the islet of Guy Fawkes. Here we enjoyed clear, warm water, and the company of sea lions who proved to be much better swimmers than any of us. We also saw turtles and reef sharks, but they are camera-shy and elusive.

Tiny little Guy Fawkes. We snorkelled all the way around it.

A pinnacle, as seen from the water while snorkelling at Guy Fawkes. We swam around the entire islet.

Sea lions were way too fast for a close-up photograph, but it was a lot of fun seeing them go by!

Unidentified fish swimming in large schools around Guy Fawkes.

One of many underwater walls seen as we snorkelled in the clear waters off Galapagos islands.

In the distance certainly, but an amazing shot of a manta ray jumping, seen as we returned from snorkelling.

Just in case we weren't exhausted, in the late afternoon we did a Zodiac cruise to El Eden, another small island off Santa Cruz that looks as though it was named because it looks like paradise. Weather was opressive, skies were threatening, and indeed it rained a bit.

Zodiac selfie in local guide Gilda's glasses.

Threatening skies and some light rain as we Zodiaced around an idyllic island known as El Eden.

Local guide Lulu took us for a late afternoon Zodiac tour around El Eden, while others from Endeavour II kayaked.

Two types of mangroves as seen on El Eden.

Pelicans camp up in the mangroves in between fishing expeditions.