Our gapper finds her sea legs and swims with sharks in the Galápagos, before leaving South America and discovering a new mood in the United States.
By Ruth Holliday, 14 Nov 2008, (Go To Source) Telegraph.co.uk
I am blessed with a good pair of sea legs. And I have never been more glad of them than in Galápagos.
For the seasick, touring the islands is torture. The seas are mercilessly choppy and the three-hour, bone-shaking crossing from Santa Cruz to Isabela island is notorious for jolting the breakfast out of tourists.
From Isabela, we negotiate a series of excursions with local boat owners. One takes us to Tortuga Island, a shell-shaped haven for nesting seabirds. Thousands of them circle the skies above us, red-chested frigates perch on the rocks, gulls screech, pelicans dive-bomb the waves around the boat. The island is inaccessible to anything without wings, although a few hundred intrepid iguanas cling to its cliffs, buffeted by the crashing tide.
On our way back we pass close to the rock they call “La Viuda” (The Widow) – a monolithic boulder that kicks up a swirling foam of purest white and unreal turquoise. On top, blue-footed boobies stand sentry. On the lower reaches, a family of sea lions soaks up the sun.
There are more sea lions on the return to shore – a mother and baby squatting on an empty boat in the harbour. How they managed to climb up there we cannot fathom – they must be much more agile out of water than their sausage-shaped bodies suggest.
Then, on a nearby outcrop we see a pair of Galápagos penguins staring solemnly out to sea. They are fresh from a swim, glistening with water and adorably miniature. They shake their tiny tails and the girls on the boat all say “Aaah”.
Another day, another boat trip – this time to a stretch of coast known as the lava tunnels. They turn out to be more like lava bridges, arching over a series of crystal lagoons. Here we see an unfeasible number of turtles. We crowd together on the bow of the boat and look down over a sea of mottled shells. In the space of half an hour we see perhaps one hundred individuals, ranging from the smallest youngsters to barnacled granddaddies.
Our guide moors up and leads us across the rocks. From here we can watch the “turtle highway”. Through a narrow channel they glide in an endless, orderly stream. By now the temptation to dive in is becoming too great and we take it in turns to bomb off the rocks into the water. The turtle rush-hour continues around us.
Our next destination is the shallow bay where white-tipped reef sharks congregate for a spot of easy fishing. To reach it we have to cross a line of breakers the size of a house. It takes a few attempts as the waves force us back, the boat tipping and lurching ludicrously. Eventually we make it across and get our snorkelling gear on, ready to swim with the sharks. I am excited and a little anxious. I desperately want to see them at close quarters, but a primitive instinct is speaking to me. “This is not a good idea,” it says. “Big sharks are bad.”
Hearts pounding, we sit on a rocky ledge, about to enter the water. My Irish friend reaches down to fasten his fins and as he does a five-foot shark darts from the rocks beneath, inches from his toes.
“Holy Jesus!” he shouts, “Did you see the size of that?” There is a ripple of nervy laughter from the group.
Reassuring ourselves that white-tips are nothing more than harmless fish-munchers we take the plunge. And as soon as we do, all doubts are forgotten. The sharks swim around us, ghostly and graceful. There are no danger signals in their movements. We lose all sense of fear. They seem so calm and so obviously disinterested in our presence that we grow bold, pursuing them around the lagoon with our underwater cameras, arms outstretched.
My final boat-ride in Galápagos is the return crossing to Santa Cruz. There is a special sight awaiting us on route. A dead whale, floating on the surface like an enormous blubbery zeppelin. It is gigantic. The putrefaction process in its rotting stomach has inflated the creature to many times its normal size. This same process produces perhaps the most vile smell ever to hit my nostrils.
Torn between wanting to take photographs and fighting the urge to vomit, we beg the captain to move away. For some it is already too late and the sick bags circulate.
Leaving Galápagos after a month on these isolated islands gives me a nasty dose of culture shock. Back in the decidedly dodgy surroundings of the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, I marvel at the existence of paved streets and brick buildings, cower at the aggression of city drivers and wander among shops and restaurants in wide-eyed bewilderment.
It is with some reluctance, then, that I begin my journey half way across the world to Auckland via Miami and Los Angeles, knowing that my four happy months in South America are at an end.
The hostel itself is as relaxed as any I found in South America. It may not exactly be smart but it is clean and among the friendliest places I have stayed. Within half an hour I am happily chatting to a table of weather-beaten surf fanatics. We sit up well into the wee hours, listening to grungy music and calling one another “dude” rather a lot.
The stopover I had dreaded turns out, to my great surprise, to be too short. My usual repulsion towards all things American seems to have lifted.
After exchanging email addresses with a couple of my new-found friends, I am off to start the next leg of my world tour. And this is the toughest thing about travelling. You have to say goodbye to fantastic people on a daily basis.
It is just 48 hours since I waved off the English girls I roomed with for a month in Galápagos. I left others in Cusco, Lima, Baños and Quito. Friends I made at Spanish classes, in hostel dormitories, bars, on volunteer projects. They are people who have shared some of the best experiences of my life. But I cannot keep them. My journey of a lifetime continues and I am looking forward to the next adventure.